THE CITY OF ALBANY CONTINUES TO CITE SMALL BUSINESSES FOR SIGN AND OTHER CODE VIOLATIONS WHILE TURNING A BLIND EYE TO THE OWNERS OF THE DILAPIDATED FORMER HERITAGE HOUSE HOTEL.
By Kevin Hogencamp
Albany City Manager Alfred Lott recommended Tuesday that the city continue to allow the owners of the Heritage House hotel to violate building safety and other codes until the city purchases the property. But some commissioners expressed a desire for Lott to treat the property like other eyesores in town and demolish it at the landowners’ expense.
Lott, who refuses interviews with the Journal, did not say why he prefers that the Heritage’s North Carolina-based owner, Romeo Comeau, to not be cited. The massive West Oglethorpe Boulevard structure has been deemed a safety hazard and its various owners have been scofflaws of city building codes since before Lott became city manager in 2005.
Lott had previously recommended that the financially plagued owners redevelop the property with taxpayer financing. But now, “I don’t think Mr. Comeau is ever going to be able to do anything,” Lott told commissioners at its twice-monthly work session.
In a written report to the City Commission, Lott – whose code officers regular cite small businesses for violations — did not offer enforcing the building safety codes as an option. Rather, he said the city’s only option was for taxpayers to purchase the property. But when he was asked by City Commissioner Bob Langstaff whether taking the property owner to court was an option, Lott said yes.
After getting commissioners’ feedback on Tuesday, Lott said he needs four more weeks to come up with a recommendation on whether the city should enforce the law or buy the property as he recommended Tuesday. Lott did not say why he needs the additional time. Meanwhile, Lott says that demolishing the property could cost taxpayers as much as $1.65 million; he once said the cost would be no more than $200,000.
Commissioners are becoming impatient with Lott and Comeau, who along with co-developer John Rivers were denied federal funding to rehabilitate the project after garnering Lott’s recommendation for taxpayer financing.
“What I don’t understand is,” Langstaff asked, “how does that jive with what we’ve been demolishing around town, anyway?”
Ultimately, Lott said he would comply with commissioners’ concerns and reconsider his recommendation.
“In another month or so we will come back (with a recommendation superseding Tuesday’s recommendation),” Lott said. “There’s not going to be an option that we are not going have to shell out some money to deal with their (the property owners’) error.”
City Commissioner Tommie Postell pressed Lott further, asking: “Which on (option) do you feel is the most feasible so we don’t have to keep discussing continuously the dos and don’ts?”
Lott replied: “I am not prepared to answer that question right now. Give me until the first work session (in June) and I will have an answer.”
Postell said he’s running out of patience.
“Are we making a bid to them or are we making an ultimatum?” he asked after Lott’s recommendation was read by Assistant City Manager Jim Taylor. “This has been dragging on for quite a while,” Postell added later.
Comeau and Columbus architect John Rivers, who is involved with the failed city-financed Cutliff Grove low-income housing project, proposed to use $16 million in federal economic stimulus funds to largely finance 90 low-to-moderate income rental units at the Heritage and a 70-unit facility for elderly people nearby. The city assisted the men with the project for several months before Lott recommended it receive taxpayer financing, which ultimately was denied. Lott won’t say whether background checks were performed on Comeau and Rivers, who both are financially plagued.
Public records show Comeau and Rivers have liens filed against them in Muscogee County and that they defaulted on taxes they owned on commercial property Rivers was purchasing in Columbus. Rivers was forced to leave the property, where he had his architectural practice, for nonpayment. Meanwhile, Rivers has a $49,786 judgment against him in a business dispute with Harlan A. Price, a former Columbus architect who now practices in Fortson.
Rivers also is indebted to the state of Georgia for failure to pay unemployment contributions for employees.