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School Board Approves Georgia Square Mall Redevelopment Incentives

The mall in 2016. Credit: Porter McLeod/file

The Clarke County Board of Education recently approved an economic development tool that could revitalize the Georgia Square Mall area, but held off on participating in five other tax allocation districts.

The Athens-Clarke County Commission approved six TADs in September—for the mall, eastern downtown stretching into East Athens, a portion of Atlanta Highway west of Hawthorne Avenue, Lexington Road near Gaines School Road, Newton Bridge Road and North Avenue. In those areas, additional taxes from new development, rather than going into ACC’s general fund, will be poured into infrastructure within the district. The prospect of infrastructure like sidewalks or sewer lines can be used to entice developers to build in places they otherwise might not.

The school board’s unanimous vote to gather more information about five of the TADs before approving them means they’ll still go forward, but without CCSD’s portion of the property taxes. School taxes make up about 60% of property owners’ tax bills. “It will still create value, just not as much as if the school district were at the table,” Mayor Kelly Girtz said. But he said he understood why the district would be hesitant, given that TADs are a new idea locally, and financial uncertainty is widespread uring the pandemic.

School board member Antwon Stephens said at the board’s Dec. 10 meeting that he supports TADs in places that are already developed but are in need of redevelopment, such as the mall. “But when you talk about Nelly B and highly Black areas, and we’re having all these conversations about Linnentown, that doesn’t sit well with me,” he said, referring to a primarily Black neighborhood on Baxter Street that UGA tore down to make way for dorms in the 1960s. 

TAD dollars could go toward infrastructure in historically underserved neighborhoods, said board President LaKeisha Gantt, and Nelly B residents asked to be included for that reason, board member Tawana Mattox added. “TADs are for economic development,” CCSD attorney Michael Pruett responded. “If you’re building sidewalks in residential areas, all you’re doing is diverting education dollars to county infrastructure.”

Board member Kara Dyckman raised questions about why some of the TADs were created. Downtown and Newton Bridge are experiencing substantial growth without one, she said. Property values in four of the six TADs are growing faster than the county tax base as a whole, according to Chief Financial Officer Byron Schueneman, and Pruett questioned whether they meet the legal definition of “blighted” that’s required to create a TAD.

The school board voted 5-4 to approve the mall TAD, with Greg Davis, John Knox, Patricia Yager, Mattox and Stephens in favor, and Linda Davis, Charles Worthy, Dyckman and Gantt opposed.