At a Tuesday meeting, community development officials presented the board with general plans to clean up blight and improve safety in struggling areas of Cobb, particularly along Canton and Powers Ferry roads and in the southern stretch of the county. The proposals include a plan to spend $10 million on a stretch of road in south Cobb to purchase and demolish apartment complexes and revamp roadside interchanges, among other projects.
The board also voted 4-0, with Commissioner Bob Ott absent, to approve the creation of two new tax incentive districts and the amendment of the boundaries of a third, known as “enterprise zones.”
Dana Johnson, deputy director of the county’s Community Development Authority, led the afternoon’s presentations, which highlighted both the challenges and successes his organization faced in recent efforts to redevelop pockets of Cobb.
He said the board will vote next month on two initiatives that will enable the county to better address blight.
One proposal would approve the creation of an urban redevelopment authority, which Johnson said would work in tandem with existing groups.
“The urban redevelopment authority is a mechanism of the county to help us address blight,” Johnson said. “Their powers are ones where they’ll be working in concert with the Board of Commissioners to help address blight in Cobb County.”
Chairman Tim Lee said the new authority would be composed of the same seven members currently sit the South Cobb Redevelopment Authority.
Johnson explained the two authorities would function as distinct entities, despite pursuing similar goals.
“These are not joint efforts,” Johnson clarified. “These are two completely separate tools that we can use to help focus on redevelopment.”
In order to set up enterprise zones such as the three approved Tuesday night, proposed areas must meet three of five state and locally mandated criteria: pervasive poverty, unemployment, general distress, underdevelopment and general blight.
Johnson has said the county can’t currently assess whether an area is home to blight because of the way state law and county code have been written.
According to those regulations, only an urban redevelopment authority such as the one that will come before the board in July can legally recognize blight.
Johnson cited the lack of such an authority as the reason why the Smyrna-Osborne, Powers Ferry and Canton Road enterprise zones could only check off four of those five boxes before their designation Tuesday.
The Canton Road enterprise zone has offered new and existing businesses tax incentives since last summer, but saw its boundaries shifted following Tuesday’s vote.
Gary Pelphrey, the Marietta attorney whose recent ethics complaint against Lee was thrown out by the Board of Ethics, took to the public podium once again just before Tuesday evening’s vote to joust with the commissioners, with whom he frequently disagrees.
“The thing that I am still just reeling about — I just learned this morning — do we really want to say that east Cobb is an economically deprived zone?” Pelphrey asked.
Citing a lack of “trust” in the board room, Pelphrey demanded to know why seemingly arbitrary patches of property were excluded from the Powers Ferry enterprise zone.
“I see the holes in here, and I ask myself, is that a donor who didn’t ante up?”
But Johnson had already addressed the gaps in the zone’s boundaries.
“That’s because the city of Marietta at this time was not interested in pursuing an enterprise zone with us on this because they have a tax allocation district in this area and the two of those don’t work together very well as it relates to that particular incentive,” he explained, “so they’ve asked us to not incorporate any of the city properties. That’s why the boundary is drawn the way it is.”
Commissioner JoAnn Birrell acknowledged people such as Pelphrey might feel uncomfortable about having an enterprise zone cast over them — if the zones applied to or reflected on residential properties.
“I guess for residential, for a homeowner, they could think of it that way because of the criteria — poverty and unemployment and blighted areas — the five categories, I could see that,” she admitted. “But with these enterprise zones, they apply to businesses. And when an area is in need of redevelopment, this is an economic tool for the businesses to qualify for additional incentives.”
Birrell said that although the Canton Road enterprise zone surrounded some residential properties before it was adjusted last night, she never had any pushback from residents because the scrutiny of the program doesn’t fall on homes.
The second proposal Johnson presented advocated for the creation of a Six Flags special services district.
Such a program would assess a property tax fee to owners within the district’s bounds, Johnson said.
The proceeds from the special services district would pay off a $10 million bond dedicated to improving the Austell neighborhood if the board approved the proposal.
“If this initiative were to be approved, it would be for the purchase and demolition of structures on targeted apartment sites on the Six Flags Drive corridor,” he explained.
Johnson said the bond could make possible other projects as well, such as beautification along Interstate 20 interchanges and implementing a “marketing and branding strategy.”
He added the South Cobb Redevelopment Authority would issue the bond, not the county, if the board approved the move.
Lee said he expected to see action on the bond in the first quarter of next year.
“One of the things that we will be doing, to help make sure that the business community has some oversight on it, is the South Cobb Redevelopment Authority will be creating a business oversight committee that will help make sure — kind of like how we have a SPLOST oversight committee now — that everything is done out in the open and everyone is aware of what’s going on,” Johnson said of the improvements funded by the proposed special services district. “We’ll be doing something very similar with the business owners of that area to make sure that they’re engaged in all the projects that we deliver.”
Lee said the two initiatives were coming up simultaneously because they would complement each other if implemented.
“They’re working in concert with each other,” Lee explained. “They’re both being created to target redevelopment efforts and we, because of the characteristics of south Cobb and blight in other areas, (felt) it was important for us to put the right authority in place to address the blight issues, which can’t be done under a traditional redevelopment authority.”
Johnson also indicated the authority would pursue another joint enterprise zone partnering the cities of Austell and Powder Springs with the county, as well as a “marketing package” aimed at promoting the business incentives offered through such programs.
“We’ve had very positive conversations with city staff in that regard,” Johnson said. “We’re hoping to move forward with that later on this year.”
The Austell-Powder Springs enterprise zone would function much like the newly-formed Smyrna-Osborne zone, requiring city councils to work with the county on examining incentive applicants within its borders.
He touted the community development authority’s ongoing effort to rebrand south Cobb by attempting to change public perception of the area.