In a 6-1 vote, the council agreed to use $1.39 million from the city’s unrestricted reserve fund to allow the city to purchase and demolish blighted properties in the West Jackson Street neighborhood and open them up for redevelopment by private developers. The vote also authorized $969,000 for an expanded street repaving program.
“I’m very protective of our reserve funds … but I think this is a wise use because we’re reinvesting in our infrastructure,” said Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington. “This council doesn’t need to be known as the one that let the city die with the most money in the bank.”
Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said he was concerned about taking any money out of the reserve funds and thought it was premature to move forward on the project.
“In this economy, I believe that it’s dangerous,” Newell said.
With $3 million temporarily committed to covering Major Throughfare Project costs as the tax levies come in, the city’s unrestricted reserve funds will go to $13 million, roughly four to five months of operating expenses.
City chief financial officer Lynn Norris assured the council that the funds were more than sufficient and well in excess of the minimum reserves of three months of operating expenses recommended by municipal finance experts.
Councilmen Jonny Davis and Willie Jennings said they approach the reserves very cautiously, too, but this was a project of vital importance across the city.
“It is dangerous to let the funds too low,” Davis said. “It’s also dangerous not to do anything. We have studied this. We can no longer afford to do nothing.”
Following an executive session to discuss property acquisition, the council move the project forward, purchasing the Deshong Apartments at the corner of West Jackson Street and Clayton Avenue, which has long been an eyesore in the neighborhood. There was no opposition to the purchase of the apartments, which was budgeted out of the city’s existing budget for purchasing and demolishing blighted properties.
“The police department has a file an inch thick from the past two years,” Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said. “The value of houses around this complex have been absolutely plummeting because of the crime and code enforcement issues.”
The city planning department will meet individually with the residents of the eight-unit apartment building to assist them with relocating. The city expects to take possession of the Deshong Apartments Jan. 31.
In all, the revitalization project has a $2.96 million budget over three years. Under the plan, the city will use the funds to purchase properties, demolish unsalvageable buildings, improve the utilities and infrastructure and create design standards to guide new construction and renovations.
“This area is appealing to young people,” Reed said. “You expand Joyner; you expand Gravalee, and you eliminate the blight.”
The efforts to revitalize West Jackson Street dovetail with the city’s other efforts at the corner of Clayton Avenue and Blair Street. In 2012, the city purchased the blighted Blair Street Apartments and demolished them with plans to create a new park.
Reed envisions a scenario where the city could purchase a blighted $15,000 house, tear it down and clean up the lot, and sell the land to a developer for $5,000. The developer could build a $110,000 house based on guidelines established citizen-led advisory group.
“We’ll be paid back as property taxes increases,” Reed said, noting developers have already expressed interest.