But according to Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who represents the area, the Board of Commissioners will soon unveil a plan to address such blight in south Cobb.
Chairman Tim Lee said an urban redevelopment authority and the creation of a special Six Flags district will be among the board’s impending economic announcements.
Blight exists throughout the county’s southern region, from crumbling Mableton storefronts to abandoned Austell homes. Dilapidated properties punctuate an area officials say has more crime and less education than the other three corners of Cobb.
“The problems that have surfaced over the time that I’ve been here are not new problems,” Cupid said.
“They’ve been created over time. But we’re excited to have the opportunity to address this now,” she added.
Dana Johnson, deputy director of the county’s Community Development Agency, said the area around Six Flags Drive will be the “focal point” for redevelopment.
Johnson said last year’s census information showed the area had an unemployment rate more than double the rest of the county’s — 13.1 percent to Cobb’s overall rate of 6.1 percent.
He also noted the area’s median household income sat at less than half of the rest of the county’s in 2012, hovering around $29,000, while Cobb as a whole boasted a median income of $65,000.
“The market is not functioning under normal conditions due to high crime, blight and general distress,” Johnson said.
Issuing bonds to eliminate blight
The South Cobb Redevelopment Authority — a volunteer board made up of seven commissioner-appointed members — will work closely with the county on any initiative, Cupid said.
Lee suggested the proposed urban development authority would be comprised of the same members as the South Cobb Redevelopment Authority but given different abilities.
An urban development authority would enable south Cobb’s existing authority to “issue bonds to address blight in communities or neighborhoods or areas that require a holistic approach,” Lee said.
He noted his view of blight is not limited to specific properties, but entire areas.
Lee said the new authority would use bond funds to purchase blighted properties, raze them and redevelop the land.
Ed Richardson, chairman of the redevelopment authority, said his organization has outlined a four-point plan to improve the overall quality of life in the area.
“South Cobb, and in particular, I think, the Six Flags corridor, is ready for a rebirth,” Richardson said. “How are we going to spell ready? R-E-D-I.”
Richardson said his authority’s “REDI” plan includes reducing crime, spurring economic redevelopment, turning the area into a destination for businesses and families and improving infrastructure.
Using a stick in Acworth and Kennesaw
One way Acworth and Kennesaw officials attack blight is with a blight tax.
Such ordinances inflate the city tax a property owner already pays, if their property fails to meet building code standards.
Acworth Mayor Tommy Allegood said a residential home valued at $200,000 pays the city a tax of $600 a year. If the resident incurred the blight tax, Allegood said the owner’s city tax would jump to $4,200 a year until the homeowner brought the dwelling into compliance with code.
“It allows us to assess both residential and commercial properties that are in very poor condition and to be able to create a special tax that would be attached to the property,” Allegood said. “When the owners of the property bring the property into compliance, then the blight tax would be removed.”
Since the Acworth City Council passed the blight ordinance at the close of 2013, Allegood said no one has been hit with the tax. Owners whose properties put them in danger of paying the sevenfold increase in city taxes are given several warnings before action is taken.
According to Allegood, the blight tax has produced positive results in Acworth without ever being levied.
“We have had very good success with property owners being responsive with these notifications,” Allegood said.
Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews said his city has also yet to collect a blight tax since Kennesaw’s City Council unanimously approved the measure in April.
“Basically, it’s just another tool for us to use in maintaining the property values in the city,” Mathews said of the ordinance, which operates in much the same way as Acworth’s.
Mathews noted the importance of the tax given “the recent recession and foreclosure rates and properties left vacant.”
Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association, said the notification process involved with a tax used by Acworth and Kennesaw is only effective to a certain point.
“In some cases, sending notice to the owner is sufficient to get them to correct the situation,” she said.
“Sometimes, though, the local government doesn’t know who the owner is.”
Henderson said Georgia’s nuisance laws would come into effect in the event the county could not locate the property’s owner or the bank in possession of its title.
After running notifications through legal channels, Henderson said, the county could take action on those blighted properties.
“If they don’t hear from the property owner, the government can do what it needs to do and then place a lien on the property for the cost of the repairs (or) tear-down,” Henderson said.
Cupid said commissioners would need to “assess” any such measures before penalties were imposed in south Cobb.
“At the end of the day, even if we were to impose penalties on property owners, it’s going to impact residents,” Cupid said. “They’re going to bear the cost of that. And the improvement that we’d like to make in this corridor is not just for bricks and mortar, it’s for people. While it’s good on its face to make sure that property owners are keeping their properties up to code and helping us in making it attractive and welcoming, we certainly want to be conscientious of those that are in the community.”
Richardson said the South Cobb Redevelopment Authority would lean toward an incentive-based program before a penalty-based one.
“This is about aspirational movement here. People and investments that are coming here are coming because they want to be here,” Richardson said. “So, we’re for incentives and not for billy clubs.”
Rewarding job creation
Commissioner JoAnn Birrell, who represents northeast Cobb, chose to encourage improvements in her area with a carrot rather than a stick.
After officials combed the county for properties in need of redevelopment two years ago, Birrell said she discovered 17 of the 38 sites singled out for improvement fell within her district. Thirteen of the blighted properties in northeast Cobb were concentrated along Canton Road.
Birrell said that prompted her to form a committee comprised of business owners, community leaders and home owners’ associations in the corridor to address the issue.
“We are in the process of becoming a foundation so we can apply for some money through the development authority or the state to try to help give incentives and additional money to help revitalize that area,” Birrell said.
All blighted properties along Canton Road fall within what Birrell calls a “rehab zone,” which allows businesses to apply for tax credits and incentives if their properties meet certain criteria. One of those checkmarks, for example, is the building must be at least 20 years old.
Birrell said committee members have done a “great job” marketing the opportunities and meeting with developers who might be interested in taking over blighted properties.
To date, Birrell said, six of the 13 Canton Road properties in need of redevelopment have attracted the capital necessary for improvement.
Removing blight through tax allocation
Tax allocation districts have allowed once-blighted neighborhoods in Atlanta to thrive, said Eloisa Klementich, managing director at Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm.
When a tax allocation district is created, a county and city may issue bonds to finance infrastructure costs within the boundaries of the district. The year a TAD is created, the taxes on properties in that district are frozen. The increase in property tax revenues that comes from the new development is used to pay off the bonds.
The Westside Tax Allocation District, located south of Atlantic Station, had a tax base assessed at $270 million in 1992 when the district was drawn, Klementich said. By 2011, she said the tax base was assessed at $705 million.
Former Acworth City Alderman Bob Weatherford, who is challenging Bill Byrne in the runoff for a seat on the Board of Commissioners, said Acworth also has a successful example of tax allocation district financing. A landfill that produced methane gas on a 30-acre parcel off Cobb Parkway near Mars Hill Road proved too expensive for developers to build. So the city, county and Cobb School District agreed to create a tax allocation district, using $6 million to pay for girders over the landfill. With the land stabilized, a Super Target opted to locate to the site, raising the tax base.
“It’s a good success story if it’s done right,” Weatherford said.
Modeling after Marietta?
Last November, Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin led a referendum victory that authorized the city’s property tax to help redevelop the Franklin Road corridor, an area officials say has been high in crime for years.
Marietta residents voted a $68 million property tax hike into effect to pay for blighted apartment complexes along the road, which city officials plan to bulldoze before selling the land to developers.
Lee has said South Cobb Redevelopment Authority officials view Marietta’s move as “reconnaissance” to gauge the true cost and impact for redeveloping the Six Flags Drive corridor in a parallel manner.
Cupid agreed the Franklin Road efforts could be a factor in the kinds of steps the board decides to take in the coming months.
“We are pleased to see some efforts in other parts of the county, which I think will bolster support for what we’re trying to do here,” she said. “Most recently, we have the Franklin Road redevelopment effort, which will certainly help to move support that we were requesting from my peers on the commission.”
But officials maintain no one strategy will likely dominate their efforts to lift the challenged pockets of south Cobb.
Richardson said the South Cobb Redevelopment Authority would focus on identifying “themes” among blighted properties and seek to remedy those in similar ways.
The Six Flags district likely to surface in upcoming board discussions will help the county “identify the specific areas that we want to deal with,” Lee said. He added the creation of such a district could make additional funding available for projects within it.
Cupid said she was looking forward to revealing the county’s proposals.
“I think this will be something new for the county,” she said. “But something that is going to be exciting for the county, as well.”