Community development balances risk, opportunity

Photo by Barry Levine

Photo by Barry Levine

ALBANY -- Latoya Cutts knows most people in the city don't know her or realize what her department does or how it does it.

In fact, in a time of nearly unprecedented scrutiny of government spending, the city's Community and Economic Development Department has become, for some, the personification of what's wrong with local, state and federal government.

With headlines trumpeting failed projects partially or wholly funded through her department, Cutts understands the chronic buyer's remorse of area taxpayers.

But while scandal permeates the media, Cutts is fast to point to some of the other programs that the public rarely sees, programs that she says are helping grow business and pull the impoverished back from the abyss.

"We're more than just what's been in the media," Cutts said. "We provide far-reaching services that have helped provide housing to very low-income individuals who likely would be homeless without help and start-up funding for entrepreneurs so that they can get their businesses off the ground."

Through partnerships with Albany Community Together and the Economic Development Administration, CDED has provided EDA loans and other assistance to small business owners who are expanding and growing their businesses or who are ready to get their dreams off the ground.

And there have been successes.

Local franchises like Cinnabon at the Albany Mall and the bustling Little Caesars restaurants on Oglethorpe and Slappey boulevards were recipients of the department's loan programs.

Many others have received help through the use of the city's Microbusiness Enterprise Center and its business incubator. Here, Cutts says that business owners pick up the knowledge to grow their businesses.

CDED also oversees the implementation of the city's Small Business Program, which is designed to help local small business owners have better and increased access to city contracts. The Albany City Commission voted at its August business meeting to pay Georgia Tech to handle the day-to-day operations of the program with CDED oversight.

In addition to its activities in growing and promoting small business, CDED also serves as the conduit between federal low-income housing programs and those in need.

The department largely manages and oversees programs from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development designed to provide housing assistance to people who meet certain federally mandated income limits.

These programs offer everything from rental assistance to grants they use to repair dilapidated housing to weatherization grants that make homes more energy-efficient.

From HOME funds to Community Development Block Grants, the department uses construction inspectors, compliance monitors, auditors and specialists to assess applicants for the various programs before the funds are awarded, Cutts said.

But, despite the successes, the public seems intent on associating CDED with failed development projects.

Most recently, a failed low-cost housing development undertaken by an area church has drawn the ire of the public after city officials decertified the organization and then repaid $364,000 in local tax dollars to HUD.

The Herald also learned that the city has begun collection efforts on two other failed projects.

The University Gardens development off Postell Drive was the recipient of $500,000 in federal funding in 2006. After two deferments, the first payment on the note came due on June 30 and was missed by the developers after the principal of the project died unexpectedly.

With nothing but infrastructure elements built on the property, the project's other developer is working with city officials -- who have now asked for the full $500,000 plus 12 percent interest -- to resolve the matter.

City officials also say that lenders attached to a shopping center in Southern Albany near the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport have foreclosed on the property and the sole business located in the center, Dollar Square at Airport Plaza.

That development received $100,000 in operating assistance, and Cutts said she believes the city will likely need to take a second-tier lien position behind the banks in order to get repaid.

Cutts said she understands the frustration that the public has when a CDED-backed project fails, but she notes that, just like private banks and other lenders, there is an inherent risk involved.

"Oh, it's definitely a risk," she said. "The difference is we are funded with tax dollars, so the accountability has to be much more strenuous, as does the screening process."

Applicants who are seeking funding for projects have to have each of their projects approved by a board of individuals, including members of the local business and banking community, before funding is allocated, Cutts said.

That includes presentation of a business plan, prospectus, alternate funding sources and other supporting documentation.

But even with the safeguards in place, the nature of their business and the current economic climate means some projects inevitably will fail, she said.

"The goal, just like at a bank or other lender, is to make calculated risks on those projects so that you keep the failed projects to a minimum," Cutts said. "That way, the funding gets repaid into our revolving loan fund and the taxpayers don't have to foot the bill."