Monday, February 23, 2009

The Old Farmers' Market

Or, if one prefers, “A Case Study in Government Ineptitude.” I say that because the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County has kept a valuable piece of property off of the tax roll for a decade for no good reason whatsoever.

This piece in the current issue of Flagpole concerning the former State Farmers’ Market property on West Broad Street immediately caught my eye (scroll down to the second item). That is because I’ve wondered about the status of this property for a long time as I drove past it – the disposition of which was an issue when I ran for the Commission back in 2002 – thinking that it should have been resolved years ago.

As is frequently the case with such matters, this one has a long history, so let’s start with a session in the way-back machine and trace its history for the last sixty plus years.

Back in 1948, the Georgia Department of Agriculture purchased the property for use as a State Farmers’ Market. I looked up what I think is the original deed on the Building, Land & Lease Inventory of Property’s web site (deed number RPR 000262). The property continued in that capacity for the next five decades. At some point during that period, however, the “rear” of the property, meaning that portion bordering Old Epps Bridge Road, became home to a Georgia Department of Corrections facility (a topic to which I will return below). Nonetheless, the Department of Agriculture retained title to the entire site.

By the 1990s, the continued viability of the State Farmers’ Market had become a somewhat dubious proposition. Thus, at the end of March, 1999, the Department of Agriculture suspended operation of the Farmers’ Market and indicated that it had no further use for the property.

Immediately thereafter, in April, 1999, the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County initiated a decade-long lease of the property for the sum of $1 per year. At the time, the folks down at City Hall had visions of using the property as the site of a new Fire Station #4 (subsequently built just down from its former location on Oglethorpe Avenue) or as a proposed Police Department precinct station, or some other similar use. In any event, no such plans ever materialized. During the ten years since, the property occasionally has been used by the Unified Government for driver training and by nonprofit organizations for food distribution and such, but that is all.

In 2003, the Commission considered relinquishing its lease, but a group of local activists lobbied for the creation of an “International Community Center” at the site to serve as a farmers’ market and a “social services” node for Athens’ burgeoning Hispanic population (legal and otherwise). The Commission bandied the ICC proposal about, but eventually voted to retain the lease while awaiting further proposals from the group, which never came (see agenda item 5, pages 8-10 of the PDF and the news coverage.

Said a Banner-Herald editorial from the time about the Unified Government relinquishing its lease and getting the property back on the tax roll:

This land has been off the county's tax rolls for at least 55 years. If the county continues to lease the state-owned property, it will continue to be tax-free. However, if it is sold to a for-profit entity, the county automatically would collect almost $20,000 a year on the property in its current condition. If the land is developed, obviously it would generate even more in property taxes.

Even so, the Commission made no move to discontinue its lease.

Finally, in 2006, the Department of Agriculture formally declared the property to be surplus and transferred it to the Georgia State Properties Commission for final disposition, and by that I mean selling it via sealed bid auction to a private party, thereby restoring it to the property tax roll.

Which brings us to the present. As John Huie notes in the Flagpole article mentioned above:

The old open-air farmers’ market on West Broad Street (just east of Hawthorne Avenue) hasn’t been used for that purpose for years, and the state of Georgia wants to sell it. But a local growers’ co-op, Athens Locally Grown, does use it as a pickup point for produce customers, and thinks it could be more. “Imagine the Saturday market moving there,” suggested Locally Grown’s manager Eric Wagoner in a recent email to members, “and truck farmers setting up stalls throughout the week. With working facilities and a little sprucing up, it really could be something nice.”

. . . But Wagoner has persuaded the state, which has declared the market “surplus property” to be sold to the highest bidder, to temporarily renew the county’s lease. “I’m putting together a plan to ’rescue’ the building from the surplus properties division, and get it re-dedicated to use as a permanent farmers market,” he told Flagpole. “It will require an act of legislature, I’m pretty certain.”


There are two problems with this. The first is that Athens Locally Grown already meets on public property, namely Bishop Park, and that arrangement seems to be working just fine – I see no reason to keep a valuable piece of property off of the tax rolls to the benefit of a group that already utilizes existing tax-exempt property.

The second is that the Unified Government will retain use of the property only until such time as the public sale process is completed and the new owner takes possession of it, a process I am told that should take about six months after the lease expires; there has been no renewal of the Unified Government’s lease, temporary or otherwise (and yes, I called the GSPC to make sure).

Be that as it may, I have tried to discover the size and value of the property leased by the Unified Government so as to determine the amount of property tax revenue it should recoup when the property goes private again – and there my troubles began. Last week, I spoke to the GSPC, the Athens-Clarke County Board of Assessors’ office, the Athens-Clarke County Clerk of Commission’s office, and the Athens-Clarke County Central Services office, being referred from one to the other. That is not so say that the folks to which I spoke were not trying to be helpful, it is just that no one could answer my questions.

Also, I looked the property up on both the GPSC and Tax Assessor web sites; the former gives no indication as to its value – no surprise there – and the latter gives a value for the property that proved to be entirely meaningless. The entire parcel, a total of 4.55 acres that includes both the Farmers’ Market and the Department of Corrections facility, is owned by the Department of Agriculture. The property is not formally divided between the two uses insofar as acreage, building sizes, vales, etc. are concerned. Further, I was told that the total values assigned by the Tax Assessor to the land and improvements did not reflect actual market value, as the office did not put much effort into determining values for tax-exempt properties (which, of course, makes a fair amount of sense). Regardless, the land value assigned to the property works out to $250,000 per acre irrespective of the value of improvements. Those so inclined can look it up for themselves (parcel number 122C1 J016).

Additionally, no one to which I spoke could tell me for certain how much of the total property was leased by the Unified Government, though the Central Services Director made an educated guess of 1.336 acres based on something his office had from a separate matter pertaining to the Department of Corrections (some to whom I spoke were not even aware that the Unified Government was leasing the property). I am hoping that I hear back from the Tax Assessor’s office as to some sort of realistic estimate of the value of however much property is involved, not to mention that of the building sitting on it, but we shall see.

Insofar as “rescuing” the property for taxpayer-subsidized use by yet another narrow special interest group (as the Unified Government has done with former Fire Hall No. 2, the Taylor-Grady House, the Morton Theater, the Athens Community Theater, etc.), I certainly hope not. This property needs to be returned to the property tax digest as soon as possible – just as it should have been a decade ago. As I understand the process, an act of the General Assembly will be required to accomplish that goal, but that aspect is a routine procedural issue.

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3 comments:

Ben E. said...

testing first this time… just testing…

Ben E. said...

Okay, here's what I tried to post yesterday…

James:

Thanks -- I think you raise a valid question. To me, though, there are other reasons to ask ourselves whether the old Farmers Market on Broad Street is a good location for a market -- mainly revolving around the fact that West Broad isn't a very hospitable roadway nowadays, though that might change if the city decides to overhaul it (see recent ABH feature on West Broad/ Atl Hwy). But I don't think we can discount out of hand the value that certain properties may have for the community -- independent of their monetary value on the tax rolls. I'm not saying this parcel is necessarily one of those places (my mind is not made up -- see above -- and Eric Wagoner could certainly still convince me), nor am I saying that it's not a point on which you and I probably don't fundamentally disagree.

Also, a clarification: Athens Locally Grown and the Athens Farmers Market (at Bishop Park) are distinct from one another. (They almost surely have some overlap among the growers using them as outlets, though.) Locally Grown (athens.locallygrown.net) is an innovative web-based quote-unquote "market" run by Eric Wagoner; it formerly met for weekly pre-ordered pickup at Gosford Wine at Alps, but outgrew that shop and moved to the old state market on West Broad. The Athens Farmers Market, meanwhile (www.athensfarmersmarket.net), is on winter hiatus but planning on starting up again at Bishop Park in spring.

james said...

I stand corrected (I do strive for accuracy).