Despite the new city manager changing his mind on the issue, the Augusta City Council voted to continue funding for Downtown Augusta Inc., at least for the first quarter of 2014.
According to the agenda packet prepared before the meeting, city staff recommended the governing body continue funding for DAI at the $13,500 level for another year.
But when the item came up for vote Monday night, Gabe Gonzalez, city manager, told the council staff had changed its recommendation.
“In the last few days, I have taken a different approach,” he said.
Gonzalez said he felt it would be prudent for the city to take a more strategic approach to economic development efforts when it comes to the downtown area, 7th Street corridor and industrial parks.
“We want to see an increase in transparency to see our return on investment and put accountability on the agencies on how the money is spent,” he said.
He recommended the city begin creating goals and strategies for economic development and to find the right partners for a comprehensive approach. He expects to complete this plan in three to four months.
Based on this timeline, Councilor Sue Jones made a motion to table DAI’s funding for the first quarter until the plan is completed.
Jones explained she has been a member of DAI for two years and feels she has seen no benefit to her business from the activity of the group.
“I think it is a good idea to table this funding until we have a plan because we have three agencies that claim to do economic development and I don’t think we are pleased with any of the three,” Jones said.
She made a motion to withhold funding from DAI until the city’s new strategy is defined. Matt Malone seconded the motion.
Councilor Jason Lowery said he understood what Jones was saying but he put more importance and benefit in supporting the local group with more input on how the money is used rather than defunding them.
“I know this is an area of controversy,” Lowery said. “But I don’t know why we are ready to bail on them.”
Jones argued there are 15 open spaces in the downtown area and only 16 of the 51 businesses in the DAI district are members of the group.
“If only 30 percent of the businesses in the area are members, then something is not right,” Jones said.
She went on to criticize efforts of DAI in the recent Chili Cookoff, Women’s Fair canceled at the last minute due to weather and initial Bikers on the Bricks rally she said underperformed expectations.
Page 2 of 2 - Malone – also a downtown business owner – took the criticism one step further.
“If DAI was gone tomorrow, I don’t know that I would notice any difference,” Malone said.
Councilor Matt Childers disclosed that he served on the DAI board for several years and he worried removing this much funding from the agency could in fact result in DAI ceasing to exist.
Gonzalez said his issue was not with DAI but just to get an overall strategy for economic development for the city and DAI may be a part of that.
“With all due respect, the agenda item description says this is about DAI funding,” Childers said. “Without this funding they may not exist in three or four months.”
Mayor Kristey Williams said that was part of her problem with the group.
“What does that say about an organization that they can’t survive three months without our funding?” Williams asked.
Childers pointed out most Main Street communities contribute far more than the $13,500 Augusta provides DAI for similar activities.
DAI Board Member Mark McCollom said the group has new board members and a director who has only been with the group for about a year. He said without DAI, a valuable Main Street loan program would also disappear. He said several downtown businesses – both new and existing - have benefited from the program.
“We’re just a board of volunteers trying to make Augusta better,” McCollom said.
Jones’s motion to table the funding failed 4-2 with only Jones and Malone voting in favor. Jamie Crum and Ron Reavis were absent.
Childers responded with a motion to continue funding for DAI for the first quarter and assess the city’s involvement with the group at the end of the quarter. Lowery seconded that motion and it passed with the same 4-2 vote.
Kent Bush can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.