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September 26, 2007

IS IT RIGHT FOR GOVERNMENT TO COMPETE WITH PRIVATE BUSINESS?

Isn’t the job of Better Home Town (BHT) to promote ALL businesses? The same is asked of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA)--is its purpose to help ALL businesses? Should BHT and DDA put one or two businesses above the others in town?

At the August City Council Meeting it was revealed that the Downtown Development Authority and Better Home Town would be involved in helping certain new businesses compete with established businesses in town. From the Monticello News, August 16, 2007:

Sage Edwards provided a report on the revolving loan fund review committee with regard to the Downtown Development Authority’s (DDA) purchase of the former Step Back in Time Building now known as The Red Clay Galleria & Cafe’. The DDA has requested use of city’s RLF for $123,000 to help purchase the building. Ms. Edwards said the project is designed to create jobs for low to moderate income persons. Two entrepreneurs were opening businesses at the location immediately, she said. She requested that Steve Jordan be appointed to the three-person (RLF) committee replacing Don Kelly and joining Scott Smith and Susan Holmes. The request was approved. Council members were informed of an August 30 public hearing on the DDA matter.

As Chairman of the TWG, I have personally talked with several people and heard from many others about the “Red Clay Café” and how it is being promoted by government agencies—the DDA, BHT, and Economic Development Authority (EDA) as well as the City of Monticello. The following is based on my personal conversations and observations.

After reading the August 16th article I called Mayor Pro Tem Russell Gross and asked about “Government” getting involved in running a business. He assured me this was not the case. The reason the City became involved was because the City had funds in the Revolving Loan Fund that would be lost if they weren’t used. He said there would be spaces in the building and they would be rented out to various vendors.

More and more talk was prevalent about the Red Clay Café, who was involved, if rent and utilities were being paid or not. It appears as if most businesses that get service from the City pay around $800-$1000 a month in utilities. They also must pay either rent
or a note payment of approximately $1000 a month as well as all the other expenses incurred to keep their business going.

Eyewitnesses have been seeing not only the Better Home Town director, Sage Edwards, but also the Economic Development Director, Tracy Travillo, in and out of the Red Clay Café continuously during the day. Anyone calling the Red Clay Café is connected to the BHT director who is answering the telephone and promoting the restaurant.

I made a call to Walker Jordan, Chairman/President/Head of the DDA on 9/6/07. We had a long talk. During our conversation I asked many questions. As one who runs a private business, I told him I was concerned with the unfair competition of government with money from grants, low interest loans, etc. competing with businesses that have to earn the money to pay for receptionist, loans at as much as 3 times the interest rate, and high utility bills. Current businesses in the City are struggling while a new business, the Red Clay Café, is in a privileged position with heavy promotion from at least four government agencies—BHT, DDA, EDA, and the City itself.

Here’s what I learned from Mr. Walker Jordan on 9/6/07:

1. The DDA will get a 3% loan from the Revolving Loan Fund (RLF)
2. The DDA will buy the building for $208,000—Ms Edwards said $123,000 was coming from the RLF; where’s the other $85,000 coming from? Grants?
3. The City will have a lien on the property because they sponsor the RLF
4. DDA does not own the building yet and does not know what kind of rent is being paid by the Red Clay Café.
5. Taxes on the building will be paid by DDA
6. DDA did a study of rents around the square and anyone renting space in the building will be charged on a “fair basis”
7. Utilities and taxes will be included in the rent charged.
8. DDA and BHT were not the same thing.

After speaking with Mr. Jordan I read the 9/6/07 Monticello News and saw the City Council agenda. On this agenda it had BHT/DDA Report. This item on the agenda raised more questions. I called Walker Jordan again on 9/7/07—following are my questions and his answers:

1. Why was the BHT and DDA mentioned together on the agenda if they were not the same thing? Sage Edwards is the director of both BHT and DDA.
2. Why is Sage Edwards answering the phone for Red Clay Café when other businesses have to hire someone to do that? Sage Edwards is also paid for work at the Gallery and gets a stipend from DDA to do so.
3. What is Tracy Travillo’s role in the Red Clay Café? She was the director of DDA but now it is Sage Edwards.
4. How much rent will be charged? (Remember rent includes taxes, utilities, insurance, rent, etc.) Rent will be $12-$14/ sq ft and utilities will be $2/sq ft.
5. Who is on the DDA? Walker Jordan, Rod Myers, Daniel McMichael, Ray Lanier, and Jehan El Jourbagy. They are appointed by the City Council.

What is most disturbing about all this is the fact that Sage Edwards is performing 3 jobs all during the same time period. She is DDA director, BHT director, and works for the Gallery. As DDA and BHT director she should be promoting ALL businesses. That is not happening. One business is being promoted, the one Ms. Edwards works for, while drawing taxpayer funded checks to promote the City and the Downtown area.

Even more disturbing is the fact that the brochure “Discover Monticello Jasper County, Georgia” was handed out at “Team Jasper” at least 3 months ago. The non-existent Red Clay Galleria & Café was featured in this brochure while the Chinese Restaurant right next door to BHT and the Red Clay Café wasn’t even listed.
See “Dining” pages in the brochure here: http://www.taxdogs.com/092607brochure.pdf


Not only was the Galleria & Café featured, but in addition to having its name, address, and phone number like all the other dining establishments, the Red Clay entity also had detailed items as to what was available. Even more telling was the fact that the telephone number listed for the Red Clay Galleria & Café is the same number as Better Home Town. The brochure was paid for with taxpayer money (called Grants).

Any business owner would love it if they didn’t have to pay their telephone bill or pay for someone to be there to answer the phone. What about copies, paper, faxes, etc.? Are these being provided by BHT/DDA at taxpayer’s expense? It’s the same with all the other perks of having government there with an endless supply of money to help one make money while others are struggling. This puts the Red Clay Café in a privileged position over all other eating establishments in town. It’s not fair and it’s not right. In fact, having taxpayers help by paying an employees salary just may be illegal.

A very long “Letter to the Editor” was written concerning this situation by a member of the Monticello Independent Merchants Association. You can find it in the 9/20/07 edition of the Monticello News or read it here: http://www.taxdogs.com/092607lettertoeditor.doc
It brings other questionable activities of BHT to the forefront. There appears to be concern that tourists and others that visit the Market on the Square—run by Sage Edwards—are being directed to the Red Clay Café without any mention of other places to eat on or near the square.

Sources tell TWG that the “letter to the editor” has gotten a few people involved with DDA, BHT, EDA, and the City “upset.” The private business owners have been upset for several months. It’s time the “government” steps back from this situation and quits competing with private enterprise. If all these government agencies want to do something to help ALL businesses, their number one concern should be to find a way to LOWER THE UTILITY BILLS IN THE CITY.

To comment on this article or to let your feelings be known email us at taxpayerwatchdogs@yahoo.com or visit our website. You can also Speak Out on the
message board set up to do just that: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/speakoutjasper/

TWG
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