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'BLINDSIDED': Covington council voices frustration over Conyers Street facility dealings
Developer's proposal declined after Keck reveals housing authority paid $75K for renderings; internal review underway
Keck speaks at Baker Field
In this file photo, Covington Councilwoman Susie Keck (left) speaks during a town hall event at Baker Field in late September to discuss a proposal from John Adams of The Revivalist Guild (center) that would revitalize the historic, rundown property. Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams (right) and others look on. (Taylor Beck | The Covington News)

COVINGTON, Ga. — Councilwoman Fleeta Baggett said her family “was ready to run me out of town this weekend” over the recent controversy surrounding Conyers Street Gym and Baker Field.

On Friday afternoon, Councilwoman Susie Keck revealed that a “previously unknown scheme involving the city and Covington Housing Authority” had been uncovered. Apparently, the housing authority paid $75,000 for renderings of a developer’s plan to transform the historic property into a multi-family housing and retail site. Keck confirmed the mayor, city manager and all council members had been “kept in the dark” and were decidedly angry.

“This in no way reflects the transparency to which this council has committed itself in the handling of the public’s business,” Keck said in a news release. 

She also said there would be an internal investigation.

“There will be a reckoning,” Keck stated.

Shortly after Keck’s news release, City Manager Scott Andrews issued a statement Friday about the future of Conyers Street Gym and Baker Field. He said the city decided to pass on the recent proposal from Alpharetta-based developer John Adams of The Revivalist Guild, whose $14 million plans called for the construction of 40 apartments and retail space while preserving the history and integrity of the beloved facility. 

“It is clear Conyers Street Gym and Baker Field hold a special place in the hearts of our community members,” Andrews said. “City council, the mayor and city leadership appreciate the history of the gym and field which is why we are currently exploring options to bring them up to the standards they deserve. After holding a recent town hall meeting (Sept. 28) and receiving community input about a proposed residential development at the gym and field, the decision has been made to not pursue the proposed residential development. We will continue to explore options to make the properties aesthetically pleasing, functional and something the community supports. As we progress, we will continue to seek feedback from the community and ensure everyone is aware of potential developments.”

During the council’s Monday, Oct. 18, meeting, Baggett voiced her own frustrations about the situation, saying she was “embarrassed” and “disturbed.” 

“I really don’t know where to start tonight,” Baggett said during the time for council member comments. “I am extremely embarrassed and disturbed by what went on with the Conyers Street Gym project. I have a lot of questions. I don’t know what forum and where I need to go to get them answered. The main thing I want to know is who knew what, when and where. I want to know how the developer was paid that amount of money. And we were told it was being done for the city, but it was actually being backed by the housing authority. I want to know who with the city knew. I want to know what they knew and I want to know when they knew it. I want to know who gave the housing authority the OK to spend that kind of money. Is it their board? Is it HUD? Can they just do it on their own? $75,000 is a lot of money.” 

She then pointed out that Andrews wasn’t even allowed to OK that size of a purchase with city funds without council approval. Andrew’s limit is $20,000.

Though there are connections to the city, the Covington Housing Authority is not considered an entity of the city. During a July meeting, Covington Housing Authority Executive Director Shamica Tucker said approximately 90% of its funding came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

A representative of the Covington Housing Authority could not be reached for comment prior to the The Covington News' Wednesday edition deadline.

“It has been an embarrassment,” Baggett reiterated. “My own family was ready to run me out of town this weekend over this.” 

Baggett went on to say she was also concerned about developments discussed during an executive session held at 5 p.m. before the council’s regular meeting that began at 6:30 p.m. City Clerk Audra Gutierrez said the subject of the executive session was to “discuss land opportunities.”

“And we don’t talk about things in executive sessions that go on,” she said. “The things that I heard tonight in executive session all have set alarm bells off. I don’t understand what’s going on. I don’t like it, and I am not going to be a part of it. And we need to get to the bottom of it, no matter who we have to get involved on it and who we need to talk to. And I want it worked out sooner than later. Thank you.”

Keck chose not to spend much time on the issue following Baggett’s comments.

“I will say that I’m surprised I have not been contacted today, since I’m the one who [sent out a news release],” Keck said, “which doesn’t make me a bit more comfortable than I was when I first figured everything out.

“What I will say, on a lighter note, is the polls are open. I hope people have seen how important it is to keep someone in office and keep experience, and I hope everyone will go to the polls.”

Councilman Kenneth Morgan briefly inserted his thoughts on the situation.

“There’s one thing about people,” Morgan said. “People love to point fingers and blame one another for this, that and the other. But we have to take responsibility ourselves, because anything that happens in our community, it’s not one person’s fault. It’s all of our fault. So when Conyers Street Gym — when those that say their kids played on [Baker Field], ‘it’s history,’ this and that. When we had that meeting, the only thing people were saying was they were blaming the city of Covington for [the condition it was in]. Well, you rode past that gym just like everybody else, but you never said anything. And then the minute we come up with a developer or want to do something over there, then everybody want to get heartburn about it and point fingers at one another. But at the end of the day, we all need to take responsibility, and anything that happens within our community is not one person’s fault. It’s all of our fault. And that’s something we need to realize and take responsibility for.”

Baggett then responded to Morgan’s comments by saying she understood his point, but she said there were instances when the city can’t, or shouldn’t, take responsibility.

“I agree with Kenny that we do have to take responsibility, but we cannot take responsibility when we are completely blindsided. And we were completely blindsided by this mess on Conyers Street,” she said. “I, 100%, take responsibility for anything that I vote on, and I want that clear. I just want to make sure that I know what all is going on, and who the players are and what’s being done.”

In response to Baggett’s demand for clarity, Mayor Steve Horton said he and others were actively seeking out answers to her and other council members’ questions, but he stressed the importance of being patient during the investigative process.

“A lot of people are upset  … and I get it,” Horton said. “The big thing is, nobody’s mind readers. I don’t know everything … You can’t know everything. You don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. But what’s important is how you respond when you know it. And I think we’re working on that and trying to do that. And the day that issues are more important than people, we’ve got a problem anyway. And so we’ve got to find a resolution that is equitable throughout the community and not just parts of it.”

Horton said he and Andrews had been working together recently to draft a questionnaire for residents that would provide city leaders a better understanding of what developments are wanted in Covington, but he did not disclose if or when residents could see that questionnaire materialize.