MARIETTA — In an unusual move, Northeast Cobb County Commissioner JoAnn Birrell went before the Development Authority of Cobb County on Tuesday to request financial assistance to help revitalize the Canton Road Corridor.
The Authority’s board members, while encouraging her efforts, asked her to bring back more information.
Birrell said the next step is to form a nonprofit and bring a formal proposal to the Authority’s grants committee in the next month or so. The grants committee is chaired by Authority member Bob Morgan and includes members Thea Powell and Donna Rowe.
Last year, the county government identified 38 commercial sites that were either blighted or vacant and in need of redevelopment. Birrell wants to target 14 of those sites in her district, which span along Canton Road from the Marietta city limits about four miles north to the Cherokee County line.
“Some of the sites are old gas stations that have been empty and vacant … and some are new buildings that just haven’t been occupied,” she said.
Birrell said she formed the Canton Road Redevelopment Committee, which is made up of stakeholders in the area and county staff, in January.
“The committee has expressed interest in getting more medical because of the proximity to Kennestone,” she said. “An urgent care (facility) … would be a good fit for that area rather than having to go the emergency room for something minor and wait.”
The county has already spent more than $4 million on street and landscape improvements in the area, paid for with SPLOST funding, county spokesman Robert Quigley said.
“Now the next step is to bring business back to Canton Road and revitalize that area,” Birrell said.
Birrell wants the Development Authority to give seed money to a yet-to-be-formed nonprofit and for that nonprofit to then use those funds to lure businesses to the area, she said.
“We don’t want to go through the county,” she said. “We want it to be a separate organization. Maybe a nonprofit or 501(c)3 that could accept grant money and maybe even get state grants in addition to what we may get approval for here.”
It’s one thing for the county to fund such things as road improvements and public safety, but “I don’t think it’s appropriate for the county to be funding loans or funding business,” Birrell said after the meeting, commenting on why she wanted to form the nonprofit.
Michael Hughes, the county’s economic development director, suggested that Birrell’s nonprofit could work as a rotating loan fund program. The size of the loan would depend on whether it’s for operating capital, new construction or operation of land.
“Facade and building renovation is probably one of the more common uses of these types of revolving loans, the terms of which can vary as well,” Hughes said. “If you’re talking about working capital, the term of that is generally three to five years. If you’re talking about loans for equipment, that’s up to 10 years and obviously talking about real estate that’s 15, 20 years out.”
Small loans are from $1,000 to $10,000, a midsize loan is from $25,000 to $75,000, and a larger loan is from $100,000 to $250,000, he said.
Birrell said she was looking for $25,000 to $100,000.
“It’s gap financing, for lack of a better word,” Hughes said. “It helps to close a gap for a business that has an interest in locating.”
Businesses in the corridor can already take advantage of the county’s rehabilitation incentive program, a county program that allows businesses that qualify and that increase the fair market value of the property in question by at least 50 percent to receive tax abatements on the additional money that they invest in the property, Quigley said.
Birrell views the rotating loan program as another “sweetener” to help lure quality businesses to the area.
Rowe applauded the proposal.
“I am extremely concerned about where we are going if we don’t do this,” Rowe said. “We’re going to start attracting the kind of things we don’t want to attract.”
Authority Chairman Don Wix said the Authority has $1.2 million in its accounts, but he would not support giving all of that to Birrell’s group.
Powell said the concept of using some of the Development Authority’s funds directly in Cobb County is an excellent one.
“How we achieve that I think has still not been determined,” she said. “I’ve been researching local authorities as well as others, and typically it is handled through the Development Authority.”
Birrell said she would return with a formal plan for the grants committee.
“Really, we’re at your mercy,” she said. “We’re asking you for a handout here.”
Birrell said her committee was not subject to Georgia’s Open Meetings laws and wasn’t sure if the proposed nonprofit would be covered by those laws either. Even so, she pledged to give a full accounting to the Development Authority of whatever money it gave her.
Birrell is a former member of the Authority, having been appointed to it by then-commissioner Tim Lee in 2006. She served until April 2010, when she ran for commissioner herself.
Lee, who was not at the meeting, said he’s never seen a district commissioner go directly to the Authority to ask for grant funding outside the current economic development process in place.
“I think (the development authority) needs to go through the due diligence to make sure it’s a great opportunity like they do with every other grant opportunity, but I don’t have a problem with her pursuing it directly,” Lee said. “You’ve got to remember, I was the guy that started the whole Canton Road redevelopment concept 10 years ago. When I first ran for district commissioner it was to address that, and I’m the one that did the Canton Road Corridor Study and all that kind of stuff 10 years ago. She’s basically picking up where I left off, and I appreciate that so very much that she’s kept the focus and the emphasis on redeveloping Canton Road because I think it’s a prime jewel of Cobb County and needs to be addressed. I think her experience on this Development Authority gives her some insight, and I think she’s thinking outside the box to try to help Canton Road move along.”
Citizen committee members on Birrell’s Canton Road committee include Andy Campbell with Columbia Properties, Carol Brown with Canton Road Neighbors, Chuck Martin with Arylessence, Clarice Spica with Baybreeze, Don Westbrook with Elon Salon, Frank Wigington of Frank Wigington Landscape, Mike Wickes with Community Bank of the South and Blackwell Elementary School principal Dr. Maurine Kozol.
In other business, Nelson Geter, the authority’s executive director, said several projects could come before the Authority in the next month or so for a bond deal.
“We have one that we’re working with the city of Marietta that would potentially create 70 new jobs and about $5 million in capital investment,” Geter said. “We’ve got another one that we’ll probably get the bond deal on for about $6 million and create about 85 jobs and it’s an implementing equipment manufacturing company.”
Geter said that company is eyeing a northeast Cobb location.
“And then we have another $5 million deal potentially, and it’s a technology development company that will create about 25 jobs (in the Cumberland area), so hopefully within the next month or so we’ll get those deals coming to the table for us,” he said.
Geter declined to reveal the names of the three firms when asked after the meeting.
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