By JOHN SCOTT COOPER, Staff Writer
A strenuous debate broke out in Monday’s Waycross City Commission planning and information session over opposing views about how to clean up the mess that is the dilapidated former Bailey Street School.
The old school buildings are crumbling and full of asbestos. Neighbors are scared that the dust blowing into their air as the buildings fall in is carrying poisons that are making people sick.
Community improvement director Sloan Fountain began to describe a project proposed by a developer working with the City of Waycross. She explained how the city had proposed that he clean up the blighted property of the Bailey Street School and build housing there, but the developer is more interested in using a property the city has clear title to — the former public works building on Colley Street.
That is not what stirred up heated exchanges between Mayor John Knox and Commissioners Norman Davis and Marian Solomon-Gaines. The tense back-and-forth was propelled by the developer’s plan to build apartments.
The mayor extolled the plan, saying the apartments would offer “upscale” housing, and the developer would have to pay “a lot” of dollars into a fund for improvement of the surrounding community.
“That money would pay to clean up the Bailey Street property” Knox said. “This is something I’ve heard for two years about how bad it is needed. Now we have a feasible way to get it done. I don’t know how anyone could oppose this.”
Davis passionately rebutted Knox, saying he opposes the plan because neighbors don’t want what could become in the future another Bailey Heights. He recalled in emotional terms the fear of neighbors who once had to endure crime and shootings and other troubles because they lived near the former housing complex.
Solomon-Gaines had initiated the discussion about the future of the apartments by asking if the developers proposal had any definite roadblocks to the apartments one day becoming HUD housing or “Section 8 housing,” as Davis termed it. The two commissioners are unconvinced that 10, 15 or 20 years from today, apartments that now would be restricted to residency by persons who are employed and of a certain income level would not have those restrictions removed.
“When Bailey Heights was new, everyone thought they were wonderful,” said Davis. “That changed. We don’t want another Bailey Heights.”
Davis also defended his case by recalling how the mayor helped find a way to keep an apartment complex out of Commissioner Diane Hopkins’ district when Cherokee Heights residents complained, though it was done in a way Davis insinuated might be “illegal.”
“Why can’t you find a way to do the same for this neighborhood?” Davis asked. “These are taxpayers in this neighborhood who have paid their taxes for years and asked that their money be spent on fixing the Bailey Street School problem.”
The mayor defended the proposal to build apartments on the Colley Street property as the “best, most feasible” solution to ending the blight of the old school. Davis argued that the “short-term” fix could lead to a long-term danger that residents in that area are not doing to put up with.
The debate ended with Fountain and City Manager Raphel Maddox being directed to ask the developer if he could change the project to the building of single-family dwellings.
Other issues were discussed Monday on which the commissioners will act in the regular meeting today at 5 p.m.
They will vote to officially award contracts to Thrift Brothers LLC for emergency sewer repairs on Colley Street near Ossie Davis Parkway ($26,476) and on Scruggs Street and Pennsylvania Avenue ($18,859). Because of the emergency need, the work has already been completed.
Commissioners are to approve a memorandum of understanding between the Ware County Commission and the City of Waycross for the Hatcher Point Road widening project.
They will also vote on the purchase of six new police pickup trucks for nearly $168,000, a couple of other bids and the opening of a separate bank account for T-SPLOST funds.