The Art of Innovation in Cities: Focusing on the win-win outcome.

For literally decades prior to my taking office the Gilbert Manor housing project had been a constant source of controversy. The project was located adjacent to the Medical College of Georgia which needed land to expand. However the debate raged on where to relocate the residents and if the residents were even in favor of being relocated at all. It was a political hot potato to say the least and the fate of a new $112 million state of the art dental school as well the future of individuals and families who had long called Gilbert Manor home hung in the balance with tensions often being inflamed by political rhetoric and the rampant spread of misinformation.

Shortly after taking office during one of many meetings to discuss the potential relocation and after a great deal of conversations with Gilbert Manor residents I began to get a much clearer picture of the situation. The project, owned by the Augusta Housing Authority, had been built in 1941 and after 67 years of service had declined over decades into substandard housing. What I came to learn during my discussions was that the majority of the residents weren’t opposed to moving but were simply tired of the ongoing debate with much of their frustration being centered upon the uncertainty of where they and their families would reside in the future.

As time went on I learned that the politics surrounding the situation were derived from representatives of the district in which Gilbert Manor was located concerns with a change to voting demographics once the 546 residents were relocated. The issue of relocation involved a financial challenge as well as the Medical College of Georgia simply didn’t have the $10 million in funding to purchase the property from the Housing Authority. All of the prevailing headwinds ultimately resulted in the potential relocation of the residents and the expansion plans of the Medical College grinding to a halt.

Refusing to give up on the situation in 2008 a group of city leaders came up with an innovative idea to remedy the decades old problem to the benefit of all sides. In a step never before taken, we approached a group of local banks to begin discussions on a loan to the city for $10 million with the city then allowing the University System of Georgia the use of the funds to purchase Gilbert Manor. The Augusta Housing Authority would then use $6.1 million of the funds to develop new affordable housing units with $3.9 million going toward the demolition of the existing units. Ultimately the loan would then be paid back through the approval of a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax the following year.

Fortunately this innovative idea which had never before been attempted became a reality after receiving the approval of the Augusta Commission in September of 2008 with all involved in the transaction coming out winners.

The residents of Gilbert Manor were finally relocated to housing providing much better living conditions with some going on to home ownership. The Augusta Housing Authority was able to use a portion of the funds from the sale of the property to develop up to date affordable housing options to the benefit of low income individuals and families throughout the city. The Medical College of Georgia, now Georgia Regents University, was provided land to expand with the increased capacity and state of the art facilities allowing them to educate more doctors, nurses and dentists to the benefit of citizens throughout the state of Georgia and beyond. The city’s investment of $10 million, repaid by voters approval of the sales tax package the following year, garnered $188 million in investment by the state as a new $112 million state of the art dental school and the $76 million J. Harold Harrison Educational Commons now occupy the property where Gilbert Manor once stood.

All too often politics seem to be built around the idea of winners and losers with a constant unwillingness to let go of conventional wisdom and to think outside the box. However there are examples out there of what can happen when individuals and organizations set aside their differences and get beyond conventional wisdom for the purpose of serving the greater good of all involved. The art of innovation in cities is not easily practiced but when done right with a focus on a win-win outcome the results can be amazing to behold.

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