Citizens address Pulaski Town Council on City of Refuge plans

Citizens address Pulaski Town Council on City of Refuge plans

Two Pulaski residents spoke out Tuesday night at a meeting of Town Council opposing the creation of a City of Refuge facility in the old Claremont Elementary School.

But as one of the residents noted, the issue appears to be a “done deal.”

Over the past several months meetings have been held here involving local supporters of the City of Refuge effort in Atlanta and its founder and President Bruce Deel.

One of those supporters is Joe Blankenship who, with his wife Kelly, founded The Rock Youth Center at Central Gym in Pulaski and the Dream Center on Dora Highway in the former SHARE warehouse.

Aside from other City of Refuge supporters, the meetings have at times involved local government officials and businesspeople interested in the City of Refuge effort and its possible expansion to Pulaski.

City of Refuge in Atlanta operates in the city’s west side from a sprawling warehouse complex that was donated in 2003 to the church where Deel preached.

According to the City of Refuge website, “Our process takes place under one roof in the most dangerous zip code in Atlanta. The needs are great, but when likeminded community members, organizations, and volunteers partner together we are able to see amazing things happen.”

A Southwest Times article published last March concerning City of Refuge’s apparent plans to open a facility here was the first some residents in the area of Claremont off Macgill Street and Ridge Avenue had heard of the plans.

Tuesday evening Ridge Avenue resident former town councilman H.M. Kidd and Debbie Clark addressed council.

“I think this should not be in a residential area,” Kidd told council. “There are so many other buildings in business districts – the old Magic Mart building, anywhere. I just think it shouldn’t be in a residential district. What is it going to do to property values, crime in the neighborhood? We’ve got a good neighborhood where we live, and I have several concerns.”

Clark, a resident of Macgill Street, said she doesn’t oppose the “vision” Blankenship has for City of Refuge.

“My family and church have supported him on many of his efforts and will continue to do so,” she told council.

“My objection and [that of others] is that Claremont is not the most appropriate place to house this. Secondly, one of the biggest frustrations that we have is the process by which this project was brought into the neighborhood, which has left a lot to be desired. This was by no means transparent. I still believe we were kept in the dark so the lease could be signed, the City of Refuge would move in and the public have no input.

“Back door politics at its best,” Clark said.

“We have been totally left out of the decisions not only for City of Refuge, but also Camelot,” Clark said adding when Camelot was in operation, she and neighbors “witnessed aggressive children at that school and naked children run through my yard.”

“But we got through it and made the best of a very sad situation,” she said.

Clark said she and others have been advised that their property values will go down if City of Refuge moves into Claremont.

Clark said that in her efforts through emails to obtain true and accurate information on what was going on with City of Refuge and Claremont, she found that no one in the town, the county or the Economic Development Authority were on the same page.

“The only valid information I received quickly was an unsigned copy of the proposed lease between the EDA and City of Refuge that {Massie District Supervisor} Andy McCready was able to obtain and was gracious enough to discuss with me on the phone – mostly to relieve my concerns that ‘at this time’ there would be no overnight guests at the building and any change in the current concept would require rezoning,” Clark said.

“We believe that the current zoning definition of school that’s being used is being loosely interpreted by the county and EDA to allow City of Refuge and The Rock Youth Center to operate in the building as a school.

“After working closely with doctors and lawyers for the last 30 years in my previous job, I know laws, regulations and bylaws are subject to personal interpretation. An after-school program and job training are a very loose definition of a school.

“We believe that if there is a request for rezoning, we will be kept in the dark. I know there is a process, but we do not have the confidence in our elected leaders that it will be open and allow us to voice our concerns.

“Members of the City of Refuge volunteers have actually come to our faces and told us ‘it’s a done deal and we’re wasting our time’ and my time here tonight.”

Clark said Deel stated at the meeting last Saturday City of Refuge would like to build a huge pavilion and a large playground for use by the community at Claremont.

“While this looks good on paper, we are extremely concerned about the increased traffic, the people, noise and activity this will bring to the area around our homes. He noted there would be security there when City of Refuge has activities, which leaves a lot to happen when City of Refuge staff is not on site,” she said.

Clark told council the Claremont area is mostly comprised of retired and older couples and “we really don’t welcome the extra traffic in the area.”

Clark said Assistant County Administrator Anthony Akers has “answered all the questions he could answer and has apologized for the way this has been brought to the community.

She said she and her husband fear confrontations at City of Refuge could spill over onto their property and they would have to defend themselves.

“In a perfect world things like that would not happen, but we do not live in a perfect world,” she said.

“I hope that if City of Refuge is allowed to occupy Claremont, and we’ve been told they would, I hope I won’t have to come before council again and say I told you so,” Clark said in closing her remarks, noting she had copies of petitions and that an online petition had also been signed by citizens.

Council member Jamie Radcliffe asked Clark if she or Kidd had received any notification about City of Refuge’s plans prior to Saturday’s meeting.

“No, we saw an article in March, and we were told by Mr. Akers that the information in the newspaper was in-accurate. Only thing we were going on was in the March article, which stated there would be a shelter in that building,” Clark said.

“I heard the same thing,” Kidd responded. “In no way, shape or form am I against the theory behind this. We need this, but just not in a residential neighborhood. There are people out there needing help and I’m for helping anybody. But this is just pushing it too far.”

Town Manager Shawn Utt briefed council on where the town stands on the issue presently.

“I missed the meetings Friday and Saturday, but I got good reports from members of council who were there and from some in the public who attended, and where the town is sitting our hands are tied to a degree because there is an allowed use because the building has been used for some sort of educational purposes since the elementary school closed,” Utt said.

“So, the job training and skills training that they (City of Refuge) are proposing to do does qualify under the State Code as an educational resource. The after-school program, which I guess is happening at the Rock Youth Center at Central Gym, qualifies as an educational component.

“The third thing they’re looking to do is a worship center and it is an allowed use by right in the zoning ordinance in the district anyway.

“That’s what we’ve been assured – those three things – are what they’re planning to do. And we have assured them that if they look to expand beyond that realm, that they will have to have public hearings – it’s not a guarantee by any means – and the community is going to have to be a part of that process,” Utt told council.

Utt said he had had a conversation with McCready and County Administrator Jonathan Sweet earlier in the day and they “hated the way City of Refuge wanted to tie the building up before making public comments.”

“It certainly wasn’t the way we would have recommended,” Utt continued.

“If we can make the best out of the situation let’s do it and let’s try and keep away from the naked kids or fights in the school yard. I would think if they’re focusing more on the adults for the training and the after-school training – I don’t know of any issues they’ve ever had at the Central Gym at the Rock Youth Center – so hopefully it’s a step up from what Camelot was for the community,” Utt reasoned.

“They are going to invest in the school and bring it back a little bit and clean it up. I think the roof’s pretty bad.  In my opinion I think we take this and try and make the best of the situation that we don’t have much control over anyway,” he said.

Utt added that the newspaper article in March “referenced what they do in Atlanta where they have a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen, quite a lot of different things that from what I understand they did not want to bring to Pulaski.”

Asking about a shelter, Vice Mayor Greg East said, “That’s expressly forbidden, as I understand it, by the county’s lease agreement.”

“Yes, basically the county’s lease agreement says if you do want to do it you have to ask for the county’s permission first and then, if the county gives permission, you have to go to the town. The county would have to sign the zoning application because they are the owners of the property.”

“Before they get an occupancy permit from the town, the building has to be inspected, correct,” Radcliffe asked.

“Yes, the fire marshal has to inspect. We’ll have them do a tour in the next week or two,” Utt said, noting October appears to be the soonest the City of Refuge could take occupancy.

Radcliffe closed the discussion, saying “People are upset over the process. They were not involved.”

By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot