After five years, Columbus Redevelopment Authority board has purchased all but about 10 of more than 70 properties in the Burns Bottom district near downtown Columbus, bringing the organization closer to redeveloping the blighted area.
Board chair Marthalie Porter said Wednesday that CRA is still negotiating with owners of between seven and 10 property to purchase the parcels, all of which are located in five blocks between north Third and Fourth streets, running north-to-south from Second through Seventh avenues.
“We feel like we’ve made some really good progress in the last two years,” Porter told The Dispatch Wednesday. “We’re still working and finalizing our overall conceptual idea for the area, and hopefully in the very near future, we’ll be able to have some different ideas that we can present to the public.”
Board attorney Jeff Turnage, who also serves as attorney for the city, admitted acquiring the properties has been an “arduous process” that has involved tracking down property owners who have moved away or the heirs of those who have died, but he and Porter said that, with luck, the board should be ready to announce its plans within a few months.
“It isn’t taking longer than I anticipated, because I fully well anticipated that we were (dealing with) a lot of heirship property, and that makes it a lot more complicated when you have to figure out who the children of this person is and who the grandchildren are, get everybody on the same page about whether they’ll sell or not sell, who gets what, how much of what share,” Turnage said.
CRA can only offer fair market value plus a relocation allowance to homeowners in the neighborhood per state law.
The project is paid for with a $3.2 million urban renewal bond the city council passed in 2017 and backed by a 2.5-mill ad valorem tax increase. CRA borrowed the money up front, and the tax will be collected through 2029 to pay off the bonds.
Porter said CRA has about $1 million of the bond money left, and it will cover remaining property purchases, as well as environmental studies, demolition and other costs associated with preparing the land for redevelopment.
Turnage and Porter also said CRA has not seized any of the houses through eminent domain, the forcible sale of private property to a public entity for an expressed public need. The Dispatch previously reported that CRA began the eminent domain process against 12 properties in the area, but the majority of those were handled out of court.
Turnage said while eminent domain is not entirely off the table, the board does not plan to use it to acquire the remainder of the properties.
“We’re not going to kick anybody out,” he said. “We want it to work where everybody leaves with a good taste in their mouths.”
Burns Bottom is one of two large-scale projects CRA has undertaken since it was formed in 2014 to help revitalize blighted areas in the city. In 2018, the board successfully marketed and sold the former Lee Middle School property to local developer Scott Berry for $450,000. While CRA marketed the property, Mississippi Department of Archives and History designated the building a historic landmark, which allowed Berry to receive historic preservation tax credits while renovating the property. It is now home to the apartment complex Lofts at Lee and event venue space Lyceum at Lee, and Berry’s family members — Berry passed away in 2019 — are looking at adding office space and potentially a restaurant.
Throughout the Burns Bottom project, the CRA board saw member turnover, including the deaths of two of its founding members, certified public accountant Tommy Lott and board chair John Acker.
“He was such a terrific person and wonderful chairman,” said Porter, who has been on the board since 2016 and replaced Acker as chair after his death. “I felt like I got to know him, serving on the board with him.”
Current board members are local developer Chris Chain, business owner and developer Mark Alexander, Realtor Robert Rhett and retired law enforcement officer Dennis Erby, who has served on various community and city boards over the years. Of the five board members, only Rhett has been on the board since CRA began in 2014.
Porter said it’s the variety of backgrounds on the board that makes it as successful as it is because “everybody’s bringing different talents” and contacts to the projects.
“Everybody is very interested in making the city of Columbus the best place it can be,” she said.
With the Burns Bottom project ongoing, Porter said the board doesn’t have any concrete plans to start another project.
“We do want to move forward with other projects for sure, and we’ve kind of speculated a little bit, but … we don’t have anything set for right now, because the Burns Bottom project is a pretty big project in and of itself,” she said.