There are four definitions for blight:
1: A disease or injury of plants marked by the formation of lesions, withering, and death of parts (such as leaves and tubers).
2: Something that frustrates plans or hopes.
3: Something that impairs or destroys .
4: A deteriorated condition.
It doesn’t take long for anyone to see that Macon-Bibb County has more than its share of properties that fit the multiple definitions of blight. Since this newspaper put a spotlight on the blight issue four years ago a lot has been accomplished, although, it’s hard to see for the uninitiated.
Our series on blight, in conjunction with the Center for Collaborative Journalism, more than anything, directed the spotlight at our blighted neighborhoods and that action created a reaction. The county commission issued $14 million in bonds with $9 million to be used as a down payment to start addressing the issue in each commission district because blight was frustrating plans and destroying hope. And it still is.
This Editorial Board was against dispersing the money in such a scatter-shot approach, and while we still hold that opinion, there have been some unintended benefits that have emerged from the process. Cooperation between commissioners has been outstanding. Commissioners with less of a blight problem have contributed some of their funds to other areas and to projects that are beneficial to the entire community.
But there are also expected frustrations. Yes, properties are being razed, but at a pace that will never erase the accumulated backlog of blighted properties. There are 1,517 properties already identified as blighted on the latest blight survey and it is expected, once the survey is complete, that the number will rise. We don’t know by how much, but our guess is that it could double.
And there are many frustrated voices out there and with good reason. Of those 1,517 blighted properties, 499 already have court-approved demolition orders — some dating back four or five years. Still, there they sit, some barely visible as structures, dissolving back into nature.
So what’s the delay? Couldn’t we all agree that, at the very least, these 499 court-approved demolition orders should be carried out? Even though we agree, we can’t, unfortunately click the heels of our ruby slippers and make them all go away. A snap of our fingers will get us nowhere. It still costs thousands of dollars to demolish a house, even though Mother Nature has done most of the work. Unfortunately, she forgot about asbestos abatement and all the other steps required before a structure can just “disappear.”
Every “I” must be dotted and “T” must be crossed. While next of kin couldn’t give a hoot while what’s left of a house is still standing, let the county tear a home down without jumping through the required hoops. Watch the fourth cousin twice removed come jutting out of the woodwork to file a claim.
The brutal reality is simple. This stuff takes time.
And there are other considerations. Once the blighted structure has been removed, what becomes of it? Every piece of vacant land can’t become a greenspace or community garden. However, as is the suggestion from other cities that are dealing with blight on an even larger scale — Detroit and Flint Michigan — that the effort, instead of using a shotgun approach, scattering buckshot all over the county — that a more concentrated neighborhood approach be used.
Once the blight study mapping is completed using $183,600 of County Commissioner Virgil Watkins’ $1 million in blight bond money, 33,000 parcels will be mapped including the former city limits and some sections of the former unincorporated Bibb County, decisions will have to be made.
Developing a master plan to address blight should be on the agenda; a plan that should outlive the elected terms of those presently in office. Certainly, any plan can be adjusted for changing times, but blight didn’t happen overnight and will not be eradicated quickly. And this effort should include other aspects to make sure neighborhoods don’t go to seed again and prevent others from ever reaching that point. Strong code enforcement is key, but it’s more than that. If we do not attempt to address the blight of the mind, within a few short years, no matter the money spent and the effort expended, the insidious impact of blight will inevitably return.