With $30 million on table for communities, tensions are high

Story so far:

March: The Atlanta City Council passes legislation authorizing the use of $200 million in hotel-motel taxes to partially finance the construction of a new Falcons stadium.

April: Talks begin with two churches that sit on the preferred southern site of the new stadium.

July: Invest Atlanta begins formal meetings with community leaders to devise a plan to spend $30 million in funds pledged to English Avenue, Vine City and Castleberry Hill neighborhoods.

This week: Two days before the Aug. 1 deadline to reach a deal with the churches, the Falcons inform city officials the south site is not feasible and announce plans to pursue the north site for the project. And Thursday, the Georgia World Congress Center Authority said it walked away from negotiations with Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, effectively killing the south site deal.

About the $30 million:

When the Atlanta City Council approved legislation to use $200 million in hotel-motel taxes for stadium construction, it also passed a resolution requiring Invest Atlanta to facilitate development of a community benefits package. The series of meetings are geared toward devising ways to address environmental, traffic, public safety and related concerns and also how to spend $30 million pledged to the communities impacted by the stadium.

The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation has pledged $15 million to the affected communities, monies that are directed toward human services, such as job programs, parks, educational efforts and more. The Blank foundation will accept recommendations from the Invest Atlanta community meetings, but organizations must ultimately apply to the Blank foundation to be awarded any funds.

Another $15 million will come from the city’s Westside tax allocation district community improvement fund for economic development purposes. Those dollars can only be spent in the Westside TAD, thus excluding the Castleberry Hill neighborhood from the funds.

Long before a shovel can break ground for the new Falcons stadium, city officials and community leaders must decide how to divvy up the $30 million the city and team owner Arthur Blank have pledged to neighborhoods most disrupted by the proposed arena.

The funds are a fraction of the $1 billion dollar project as a whole. But many residents of Vine City, English Avenue and Castleberry Hill — neighborhoods in the shadows of the controversial playground — believe it's the last multi-million dollar cash infusion they'll see for decades to come.

Invest Atlanta officials are overseeing meetings to devise a community benefits plan, which considers ways to address environmental impacts, traffic congestion, public safety concerns and potential gentrification of these neighborhoods. A committee will propose how the $15 million from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and $15 million from the Westside tax allocation district community improvement fund could be spent to meet those needs.

Though the meetings are still in the early stages, some residents are unhappy about the process. Some worry the city will back out on its commitment to the neighborhoods. Others complain the proposed timeline to deliver a list of projects to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and the City Council — by this fall — is too ambitious. Many feel shut out of the talks, which largely rely only on feedback from residents appointed to a committee.

“Should we all leave since we’re just watching this community meeting?” Torrey Waters, a resident of Vine City, asked at a recent benefits meeting. “If you want community involvement, why have us just watch?”

A sample of ideas from early meetings include micro-loan programs, small business incubators, mobile health clinics, recreation centers and historic preservation efforts. The community benefits plan must be completed and submitted to city officials before $200 million in bonds backed by hotel-motel taxes can be issued.

Brimming under the surface of the discussions is an element of distrust. Some residents worry city officials care more about the stadium and its backers than the needs of communities rife with poverty. And officials must ensure the funds be awarded to capable organizations and then accounted for.

“There is a fatigue that develops when you talk about English Avenue and Vine City because so many efforts and resources have been spent and started over there, and it wouldn’t appear that it has amounted to much,” said Councilman Michael Julian Bond, a long-time resident of Vine City.

“There have been well-meaning people in the community who have been granted resources in the past and haven’t delivered,” he said.

Councilman Ivory Young, who represents the impacted neighborhoods, said many residents are on edge because the construction of the Georgia Dome wiped out a community known as Lightning. At the same time, millions have been spent in Vine City and English Avenue in recent decades on development projects for affordable housing or health centers, but with little effect on the area’s poverty rate, he said.

“There has not been a lot of trust built and so folks are anxious to see evidence that give them good reason to trust that their interests, as indigenous residents, will be protected,” he said, adding that the funds should be spent on services like job training instead of just brick and mortar.

Deborah Scott, a former city of Atlanta employee who now heads Georgia Stand-Up, criticized the meetings as top-heavy. She believes neighborhood groups should first meet to develop goals before entering a formal process with city officials or developers.

“The way they’re doing it in Atlanta is telling them what they’re going to do and have two-hour sessions to talk about those issues without real authentic community buy-in,” she said earlier this month.

Invest Atlanta officials declined a request for an interview, but COO Ernestine Garey said in a statement that the organization is relying on feedback from residents to shape the process.

“The committee includes a good representation from all impacted communities, with each engaged resident bringing his or her own unique perspective and vision for community improvement. Feedback from residents is highly valued as we work to ensure transparency throughout the plan development process,” Garey wrote.

But residents like Greg Hawthorne, head of the Vine City Health and Housing Ministry, suggest none of the proposals really matter without iron-clad commitments.

At issue is wording in the final legislation regarding community benefits. It refers to the process as a community benefits “plan.” Some residents expected the term “agreement,” which they believe gives the legislation greater weight.

“We find it hard, given history and past agreements and plans and so on not being fully implemented, to really count on something … if we’re not party to a legally enforceable agreement,” Hawthorne told officials at the July 24 community benefits meeting.

Katrina Taylor Parks, Reed’s deputy chief of staff, said the city is discussing the wording, but made no promises to anxious citizens.

“We’re taking this very seriously. We’re not ignoring it,” she said, urging residents to stay focused on their ultimate goals.

“The more we pull back on one thing, we’re losing time with something else,” she said.

There are signs, however, that the process is becoming more amenable. After last week’s meeting, Parks advocated for allowing greater participation from the residents not on the committee at the next session, scheduled for August 7.

Until then, people like Robin Gagnon say there is a simple way for people to stay involved — by talking to the folks who represent their neighborhoods.

“I think each community has to believe in their leadership at the table and has to be feeding their thoughts and funneling information to that leadership to be represented,” said Gagnon, vice president of the Castleberry Hill Neighborhood Association. She is not on the committee. “With so many viewpoints, neighborhoods are still working to gain consensus on what the forward vision will be.”

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