Albany City Commissioner Jon Howard, the longest serving member of the board, has long been a proponent of cleaning up the Mimosa Trailer Park (Main Street Estates) on East Clark Avenue, which city officials say is a problem area for drugs and prostitution. (June 16, 2013)
ALBANY, Ga. -- Jon Howard has been an Albany city commissioner much longer than anyone else serving on the board, closing in on 20 years and counting. And as each of his last couple of four-year terms has neared its end, Howard has talked about leaving politics behind, about traveling to exotic locations throughout the world.
While there are many who believe Howard will have to be dragged, most likely kicking and screaming, from his Ward I post, anyone who knows his work knows that if the long-time commissioner has a personal white whale that he will never stop chasing, it's the Mimosa Trailer Park that located on 13.8 acres that run along Clark Avenue.
The mostly blighted park, which at one time had 94 trailers crammed -- sardine-like -- onto those acres, now has 62 separate lots, according to tax records, and around 52 trailers. And officials at the highest levels of the Albany Police Department, the city/county Code Enforcement office and the Albany-Dougherty Drug Unit agree that Mimosa is one of the city's highest crime areas, notorious for its drug and prostitution trade.
"There are, unfortunately, some decent, hardworking people who live in that area," Drug Unit Commander Maj. Bill Berry said. "But too often it's like the garbage dump for crime in our community. It's definitely one of our high-priority areas of concern; definitely in the Top 5, maybe the Top 2."
Vaulted to notoriety in the community as the Mimosa, the owners of the park, listed on tax records as Gram Investors of Tennessee, which has a Del Ray Beach, Fla., address, have erected a sign renaming the park Main Street Estates, although it remains on county tax records as Mimosa. That bit of diversion doesn't convince Howard that any form of significant positive change is imminent.
"New name, same old problems," Howard, a drug counselor, said of the park. "This place has been like this for the last 20 years plus. Even after they've moved 15 to 20 of the worst trailers out, this is still where a lot of this community's drug trade and prostitution takes place.
"The city has tried to hold the landlord accountable, but it's hard to deal with someone who's located in another state. I've called down there a number of times and left messages, but so far I have not gotten one call back."
The Albany Herald's attempts to contact Gram Investors also were unsuccessful.
Not only has the city attempted to entice the owner of the park to bring it up to acceptable standards, it once tried to buy the parcel.
"We discreetly put out an offer on the property, but I think when the owner found out it was the city trying to buy it, he raised the price," City Manager James Taylor said. "We could have spent the money, but I don't think we could have justified such an exorbitant price. We didn't want it bad enough to get ripped off.
"To regulate that property and others like it in the city, we've got to make some policy decisions. The state Legislature passed a law that will allow us to require out-of-state property owners to have a local agent that we can hold responsible for the property, that we can cite if we need to. It's going to take something like that. As it is, we don't have the authority to compel someone out of state to answer our complaints."
Law enforcement officials say there are plenty of complaints originating in the Mimosa park. Most of them, according to APD Chief John Proctor, are drug- or prostitution-related.
"I don't want to give the impression that it's any kind of war zone, but it is extremely difficult to work that area. It has been for a long time," Proctor said. "That's a very depressed area, and it has been for many years. We've tried to actively work it, but it seems that every time we get a pattern going that would give us the opportunity to perhaps close it down, it changes ownership."
Code Enforcement Director Mike Tilson said his office has demolished two condemned trailers in the park, and 13 others have been demolished and removed by owners. Code Enforcement has also worked 34 cases since September 2009 ranging from property maintenance to junk cars to unsafe structures.
"One of the challenges with a trailer park is ownership," Tilson said. "Sometimes the lots are owned by one person and the trailer by someone else who rents the lot. Some of the trailers are owned by the same person who owns the property, and that person rents the trailer.
"We've answered complaints at the Mimosa site, and we've self-initiated cases. But we're no longer staffed to target specific areas for code violations. And with the increased number of calls to the city's 311 system, we're responding more to specific complaints throughout the city and county."
Howard said he will encourage the county district attorney's office to get involved in efforts to clean up Mimosa, much as it did the former Georgian Mobile Home Estates park that was cleared out when Walmart was built in East Albany. The city commissioner said then-District Attorney Ken Hodges declared Georgian Estates a nuisance.
"I hope (Dougherty District Attorney) Greg Edwards will get involved in this like Ken Hodges did," Howard said. "I don't think it will be difficult to declare this trailer park a nuisance, an unfit place. This place is located on one of the city's gateways, and it is one of the first things people see when they come in for Albany State's homecoming, for arena football games and for other events in the city.
"I recently talked with some people who came to town to celebrate their Dougherty High class reunion, and they said they couldn't believe how the city had deteriorated. Some of them said they were shocked at the deplorable conditions, especially over in this area."
As Howard walks through the Mimosa Trailer Park with a Herald reporter, he points out escape cut-throughs that drug dealers and prostitutes have cleared for when law enforcement shows up. As he talks about the conditions of the park, he points out abandoned and trashed trailers, piles of debris, junked vehicles and other common elements of blight.
He talks about turning the park into a community asset, about locating retail outlets on the property or even a recreation area with a swimming pool that has long been one of his other goals for his ward. But with a listed tax value of $501,700 for the property and a landlord who, though he may be absent has, according to Tax Director Denver Hooten, paid his property taxes on time, his dream seems unlikely.
"I try not to take it personally," Howard said. "But I think about a couple that has lived in this park for 20 years and can't seem to get out. They're the ones who have to deal with the crime and the dangerous activity on a daily basis. Those are the people who deserve our help.
"It's hard for people who don't come here, even for the commissioners who serve the other wards, to realize how much of a slum this is. But I have a motto that I always say: If you live on the southside or the westside or the northside and you think this is not a problem; well, if it hasn't rained on your parade yet, just keep marching. If we don't get control of these eyesores, at some point they'll be in your front yard."