When about 75 people put their minds together in a two-day conference on blight, they found plenty of ideas and even more reasons to hope. But they found zero magic bullets to cure the problem.
The gathering at Mercer University did lay some groundwork for Macon-based organizations to work together to address common problems, which hasn’t always been the case. Dianne Fuller, who runs the Fuller Center for Housing in Macon, said she initially didn’t know everyone in a room of people gathered to talk about helping halt the community’s blight issues.
Coordination also has been a problem, officials acknowledged.
Tom Buttram, whose Macon-Bibb County department oversees code enforcement and building inspection, said he had a large file folder for a blight task force -- but he hasn’t had to open it in years because there has been no need. There is no blight task force in Macon-Bibb.
Mayor Robert Reichert, who gave the conference’s keynote speech Friday, estimated that the county has at least 4,000 blighted houses. His administration aims to tear down 100 houses per year.
“I got news for you,” Reichert said. “They’re coming online faster than I can get them down. I’m losing ground, at 100 houses a year.”
Reichert said he would need big money -- perhaps $20 million to $30 million -- to fix the city’s blight problem.
“It’s certainly a problem of magnitude and not one easily addressed or resolved,” he said, before describing how it can take five years to tear down a decrepit house.
J.R. Olive, a program coordinator at College Hill Alliance, said it takes years to turn around an ailing neighborhood. The alliance has completed most of a 10-year plan over the past five years, he said, but he’s not sure that should be defined as success.
Real success will come when there’s no supporting organization and no funding needed, and any work is left to volunteers, Olive said. That hasn’t been the case for the College Hill area.
“It’s easy to pay somebody to work on something and have success,” he said.
Blight is not an abstract or academic issue.
Angela Manson of Macon’s Pleasant Hill community, which declined after it was split by Interstate 75 decades ago, said children in blighted neighborhoods have a right to be able to walk to school, and older people have a right to be safe and sit on their front porches.
“They have a right to decent neighborhoods, too,” she said.
Manson also railed against development that puts new houses in areas with vacant houses and those that add more shopping centers near vacant ones.
“I’m not opposed to economic development, because I understand that’s what brings communities along,” she said. But low-quality construction “drives people out of historic neighborhoods where, with a little bit of upgrades, is probably a lot better. ... Established neighborhoods become places for people with low pride who don’t care.”
Karen Abrams, of Pittsburgh, said pride can’t be taken lightly.
“You can’t expect to be proud of a community that the city’s not proud of,” she said. “It’s an ecosystem, and everybody’s connected.”
The two-day conference at Mercer University was sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Collaborative Journalism, a partnership of The Telegraph, Mercer University’s journalism program and Georgia Public Broadcasting. Participants shared stories and ideas from Augusta, Detroit, Baltimore, Memphis and other locations.
Mercer’s Jay Black, of the Center for Collaborative Journalism, pondered whether it made sense to consider a property blighted if it is still occupied, perhaps by an older couple unable to keep up the property or a single-parent family that couldn’t afford a lawn mower.
“Can we morally define a house owned by these two examples as a blighted house, and is the solution is just mow their lawn? Help them, individually, rather than putting them on the map with a thumb tack?” he said.
Replied Nadia Osman, director of revitalization at the College Hill Alliance: “Well, if you don’t map them, how will a volunteer agency know to help?”
Improvements can come from within a neighborhood, but residents may need additional help. James Austin said his Village Green neighborhood has had about 13 different cleanups or beautification projects since January. But the neighborhood’s resources are limited, and he estimated there are about 60 to 70 properties that need to be cleaned up.
Some blight discussion centered on smart phone apps and maps, but that’s irrelevant to a grandmother who can’t pay a water bill, Austin said.
Sometimes families can be moved into vacant homes in Macon’s Village Green neighborhood. There, the ability to get a lawn mower or a large garbage bin can be critical to turning around a home, he said.
Reichert said that blight “breaks the spirit of people in the neighborhood,” and that someone living next to a “hell hole” won’t want to mow the lawn as often.
That leads to entire neighborhoods declining and other kinds of decay, he said.
“How do you raise a child in the middle of a blighted neighborhood and expect them to have respect for anybody else’s property?” Reichert asked.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.