For years, blight issues have plagued Macon-Bibb County.
But over the past couple of weeks, the plan and resources to attack the problem have coalesced in such a way that the city should soon be able to attack the problem on multiple fronts.
After returning from a blight conference in Detroit earlier this month, members of the Macon-Bibb County Blight Task Force have proposed a plan to gather data to best determine how to spend $14 million in bond funds that Macon-Bibb County government will use to address blight.
Assistant County Manager Charles Coney, who is leading the task force, presented the plan to Macon-Bibb commissioners last week. While commissioners still need to formally approve the plan, Coney and the 21-member task force already are beta testing a new app called Blexting that was created by Loveland Technologies.
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The app, which is used in Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago and other major cities to map blighted areas, is easy enough to use that local residents eventually will be able to upload details of blighted properties to a central database. That will give officials a framework to address the problem.
The Macon-area Habitat for Humanity will lead the effort to map three neighborhoods this week -- Lynmore Estates, Beall’s Hill and Village Green -- by using its personnel, neighborhood youths and students from Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism. The CCJ is a partnership of Mercer’s journalism program, The Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Coney said the task force will mirror that effort with beta testing in other parts of Macon.
Sundra Woodford, Habitat’s neighborhood revitalization manager, said the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded a grant to the CCJ, which in turn contracted with Habitat to collect the data.
“We will have a brief orientation with the college students and residential youth on Monday, then go out Tuesday and Wednesday before finishing up on Thursday,” she said. “We want to see how user-friendly (the app) is and the ease of use for citizens.”
Woodford said she doesn’t know how many houses the mapping will include.
The app works quickly, she said. The user takes photographs of a blighted house and answers five yes-or-no questions:
Is the property vacant?
Is the property secure?
Is the property boarded or open?
Is the property overgrown/debris?
Is there dumping on the site?
People using the app will give a condition rating of the property, which ranges from A (well-maintained) to F (structurally dangerous). Woodford said the plan is to report to the CCJ on all the properties rated D or F.
“Hopefully, (officials) can compare the data, and it will be useful for the citizens of Macon-Bibb County,” she said. “We can get some of these blighted properties off the books.”
A MAJOR PLAN
While presenting to commissioners last week, Coney noted that a large number of government and other agencies, such as the Bibb County Tax Commissioner’s Office or Macon-Bibb County Business Development Services Department, already collect data that shows blighted residential properties.
The problem, however, is that different criteria to judge blight are used in the assessment depending on which agency is doing the work. Also, there is no central database in the city that lists all of the blighted properties.
“There are several databases” across the agencies, Coney said. “You can’t aggregate it. That’s why we’re having to go to one tool. That way, when we are comparing data, we are talking about the same data.”
Coney said he thinks all of Bibb County could be mapped by the end of the summer, which would then give Macon-Bibb officials the chance to assess which areas have the most residential blight and come up with an appropriate plan of attack.
Already, officials have organized and held several public meetings throughout neighborhoods to educate residents and enlist their help in collecting data.
According to the proposed plan, the task force divided the county into 12 zones to map blight. The task force also added seven Shalom Zones: Beall’s Hill, Bellevue, East Macon, Lynmore Estates, Pleasant Hill, Unionville and Village Green. Shalom Zones are neighborhoods the city has designated for redevelopment.
Commissioners will have to choose from three options within the plan. Coney said the city can hire a consultant to oversee blight removal; contract the work to a firm; or choose a combination of both.
The proposed plan also contains estimates on how to spend the $14 million in bond money. Already, $2 million will be spent in the Beall’s Hill neighborhood for infrastructure improvements such as lighting, sidewalks and paving, along with $2 million for Wise Avenue for blight removal and athletic fields.
Most of the money hasn’t yet been earmarked for specific projects.
Three as-yet-unidentified projects will receive a total of $8 million, while an additional $1 million will be divided equally among Macon-Bibb’s nine commission districts for identified blight work.
All of those projects will be decided upon once officials have collected and analyzed the mapping data.
Coney estimated the remaining $1 million will be divided up like this: solid waste disposal/tipping fees ($700,000); community engagement ($200,000); blight survey app and survey stipends ($75,000); blight administrative training ($15,000); and a grant match ($10,000).
Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Virgil Watkins, who attended a meeting Friday to review information from the Detroit conference, said commissioners are enthusiastic about what they have seen so far.
“I’m really excited about the Blexting,” he said. “I like the idea of using a scientific approach. Now that we have the money in place, we can roll (the plan) out in phases. ... We’ll be able to clear some delinquent property off the books.”
Frank Austin, a blight task force member and executive director of a nonprofit community center in the Village Green neighborhood, said the idea from the Detroit conference that made the biggest impression on him was creating a way for the government and community to work together to address blight.
“The things we need to do, they need to be done as a community,” he said. “It’s a problem that’s so immense that it’s moved beyond the government. This will give the community a voice. ... From our perspective, it’s how successful can this program be? If the community is involved, then ultimately it will have a better success rate. That’s very important.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.