OEDEL: Boosting Macon’s poor

August 4, 2013 

In a recent column about Macon’s troubles, I concluded that growth in downtown Macon depends on addressing poverty. Many Maconites need work.

I’ve been challenged to propose what we could do locally to achieve that. The problem is daunting because both population and jobs are declining downtown and in the city. The poorest, least employable cohorts, now make up a growing share of the remaining population. Creeping poverty also means the ranks of the city’s population without transportation is growing, leaving them more isolated from better job opportunities farther from downtown.

Assuming that it’s a bigger project in the short run to create more jobs downtown, the first order of business should be to adopt a job shuttle program, so that any unemployed person in downtown Macon and nearby poverty-ridden neighborhoods can get reliable, essentially free or very-reduced-cost transportation door-to-door to and from any regular employer in the greater Macon area, 24/7, for, say, up to a year. This program might be funded by a coalition of public agencies, employers, foundations and the like, meanwhile creating more jobs downtown for the people running the shuttles and servicing the vehicles.

But there’s also a growing disconnect between potential employers in the Macon area and the unemployed in downtown Macon, a gap that seems unlikely to be bridged by fairly wary employers on their own. We need an energetic nonprofit clearinghouse presenting (and helping prepare) potential unskilled and semi-skilled employees from downtown Macon that an employer can go to for a reliable basic profile of potential candidates.

Because such candidates are not likely to have resumes or even the skills to fill out applications reliably, we’d need the clearinghouse, among other things, to provide honest profiles of the potential employees, independently confirming and cataloging their capabilities, experience, contact information, wage requirements, credit histories, criminal backgrounds, references for trusted use by potential employers.

Then there’s the bigger task of developing jobs downtown or near downtown, meanwhile helping unemployed citizens to develop skill sets for those jobs. One of the reasons Macon’s downtown can’t attract significant retail is because it sits next to many acres of unpopulated land just southeast of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, including the old industrial zone, parks, fields and undeveloped land in the flood plain, including the sewage treatment plant and the dump. That sounds disastrous developmentally, but it may be an agricultural blessing.

The local food movement is blooming nationwide, giving entrepreneurial small-scale farmers the chance to compete against big agri-businesses. Many consumers are willing to pay significant premiums for fresher, healthier produce, richer eggs, local cheeses and grass-fed livestock. Unfortunately, our local poor have little ability to farm and get their farm goods to markets like Fresh Market, Publix, Kroger, etc., that serve the greater population.

In short, the abundance of considerable potential farmland near downtown, plus all the vacant lots now littering the city and the surfeit of potential farm workers, suggest many interesting opportunities for several different types of agricultural business incubators and cooperative agricultural organizations to sprout.

To sprout at all, though, would require facilitators -- strong institutions like the local government, the Georgia Farm Bureau, foundations and savvy, well-off farmers.

They’d need to collect the land, buy the farm equipment that could then be shared among different small-scale providers, and, most importantly, hire people with enough knowledge about small-scale farming and Macon’s poor to be able to oversee effective implementation of the training and programs. The goal? Putting local people to work in the potentially remunerative and, in any event, fundamentally positive world of local farming.

At a second level of development, after the first few green-able farmers were identified, we’d need to call on our local banks to fund the roll-out of bigger farms that could do it on a self-sustaining scale.

Pie in the sky? Nope. Check out Milwaukee’s MacArthur genius Will Allen, Burlington, Vermont’s Intervale and Mulberry Methodist’s Jack Head. Incubating grassroots, quasi-urban agribusiness in Macon is doable with will and muscle. So is incubating other emerging business types. Let’s try.

David Oedel teaches at Mercer University Law School.

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