Atlanta council passes community benefits plan, clears path for construction

The Atlanta City Council unanimously passed a controversial plan for spending millions on neighborhoods near the future Atlanta Falcons stadium, clearing the way for the city to issue $200 million in bonds for stadium construction.

The community benefits plan was approved after months of tense negotiations between city officials and residents and is essentially a $30 million wish-list for the poverty-stricken communities most affected by the stadium — English Avenue, Vine City and Castleberry Hill.

The plan needed the council and Mayor Kasim Reed’s approval before city officials can issue bonds, backed by hotel-motel taxes, for stadium construction. The $1.2 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium is scheduled to open in 2017.

Despite months of talks, some residents have criticized the community benefits process as rushed and incomplete. They’ve repeatedly said they worry the money won’t be delivered and isn’t enough to make a difference.

“I can’t say that it’s really good and it fulfilled what we would hope it would do because it hasn’t,” said Yvonne Jones, who serves on the community benefits committee and is chair of a neighborhood planning unit. “It just has not panned out to be in the best interest of the community.”

But English Avenue resident Makeda Johnson — who also sits on the committee which helped create the plan — called for the council to pass the legislation and praised the process as inclusive.

“We worked very diligently. We worked very hard, and we’re here to stay in that process to the end,” she told councilmembers before the vote.

Reed has said the $30 million is just one pot of money headed to those neighborhoods. The mayor appeared at the committee’s final meeting last week and said the city has applied for a $250 million housing grant and will spend tens of millions on infrastructure improvements.

“I wanted to address this notion that we think we’re going to solve this with $30 million,” he said, recalling that more than $100 million has been spent in the area over the course of the past two decades. “As opposed to doing it over 10 and 20 years, we’ll be able to do it over four, six, eight and 10.”

“It’s not $30 million we’re going to end up leveraging,” he continued. “It’s going to be far more than that.”

The community benefits committee doesn’t have the authority to direct how the money will be spent. Instead, the plan offers suggestions for projects to address environmental impacts, traffic congestion, public safety concerns and potential gentrification. Suggestions include a business incubator, childcare programs, land banks, affordable housing programs and more.

Organizations, developers and business owners whose projects fall within the plan’s parameters must apply to Invest Atlanta for funding. Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, oversees $15 million in funds from the Westside tax allocation district that must go to brick and mortar projects.

The other $15 million — geared toward human services projects — will come from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and has a separate application process.

Deborah Scott, head of Georgia Stand-Up, successfully pushed for the council to amend legislation creating an advisory group for workforce development and job training programs. That committee will make recommendations for how to support these efforts in the communities.

“If we can get a good couple of nuggets in there, that’s the goal,” she said before the meeting.

Still, Scott – whose group was an original proponent of a community benefits package — said she was concerned that residents have little recourse should funds not find their way to communities as the legislation requires.

“If they don’t do what they say, there’s no claw-back,” she said.

Running underneath the discussions is a current of distrust. Residents worry they don’t have adequate say in how funds are ultimately directed toward their communities. And city officials are loathe to award money to organizations that have a history of under-performing.

More than $100 million has been spent on the neighborhoods since 1989 with little to show for it, city officials have said.

Tensions have flared throughout the months of meetings as residents called for the benefits package to be an agreement instead of plan.

The negotiations erupted in anger in recent weeks when residents learned the benefits package was introduced as legislation to the council before it had officially been approved by the community benefits committee.

At the time, Councilman Michael Julian Bond, who introduced the bill, said it was a procedural move to place the legislation on the calendar before the year’s end, but was not the final document.

The benefits committee later approved the final plan.

“I know we’ve disagreed during this process, (but) the city has put millions of dollars in trying to attempt to turn this community around,” Bond said Monday. “And we’re not going to walk away from that investment just because we pass this resolution today.”

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