Fighting blight: A conversation with Charles Coney

Macon-Bibb County leaders have decided to borrow $10 million dollars to fight blight. The planning for spending it is nearly complete, and the money will be on hand by May 31, Assistant County Manager Charles Coney said,

But it will take more than government money to clean up blight, said Coney, who is the Macon-Bibb government’s point person for community development issues.

Many community leaders have taken matters into their own hands: Neighborhood revitalization efforts have emerged in Village Green and the Tattnall community.

Last week, Coney talked with Georgia Public Broadcasting in Tattnall Square Park about what’s working in the growing blight-fight movement.

Q: This park is a strong example of the community partnering with the county to clean up blight. Describe this park and what’s working here?

A: This is a centralized location for all walks of life to come together to experience a quality of life. It happens to be connected to the Mercer (University) community, but that’s only one side of it, because on the opposite side, you see the elementary school and then on the opposite side of that you see the historic value is close to the Pleasant Hill community as well as Beall’s Hill. For us, this is just a nice, large greenspace.

Q: I’ve talked to people in Macon who grew up around here who said this used to be a place you did not want to go. What’s different now?

A: Many times when you have this much space, several things can happen, whether they be positive or negative. Unfortunately during those years (that critics refer to), some negative things started to happen. But I’m pleased to say that the community stepped forward, along with the government, to say “This is our park.”

Q: We’ve talked about Friends of Tattnall, and now there is another friends group that has emerged called Friends of Village Green. Do you think it can work?

A: Can it work? It already works. When you think about Friends of Tattnall, they organized themselves with a focus and a vision to make this park the best that it could be, to take it from distressed back to beautiful. Their concept, which was very grassroots, has taken hold, and now we have Friends of Village Green.

Now, what was their first task? They recently focused on putting out 30 cherry blossom trees around a retention pond. It was a fenced-in area that was one of the eyesores as you drove through the community. It is now surrounded by professionally landscaped cherry blossom trees. They will be dedicated in the next week or two, and one year from now Village Green will celebrate the Cherry Blossom Festival like everyone else.

Why is that critical? It changes the mindset. Instead of talking about all of the disappointing elements or crime or distress that’s inside of Village Green, we now can talk about something that’s positive. They have connected to something that drives Macon, and that’s our cherry blossom.

Q: As you know, people in distressed communities like Village Green haven’t always felt like government cares. What do you say to people in those communities?

A: I say first to them that we apologize. It was never the intention of this government to leave any of its citizens behind. It is our responsibility to step forth, not necessarily to do everything, but we should be involved in it. We recognize that this work is too great for us, and we do not have enough resources to identify every blighted property. We do not have enough demolition trucks in our inventory to take care of those blighted properties. What we can do is create a forum and be a participant in making it better so it doesn’t look as if we have left a group on their own to fend for themselves.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the history inside of Village Green. Those citizens felt like they were disconnected from government. They felt like no one cared for them, and we’re hoping that our recent efforts and our commitment inside of this consolidated government is going to let them know that we’re in this together.

Q: How will $10 million in funds to deal with blight be spent? You have been working to figure that out, and one thing you did was travel to Flint, Michigan, which became a community full of blight. What did you learn?

A: What we have found is the way you address blight is based upon how you got to be blighted. Flint had a mass exodus based on the General Motors plants being closed. Detroit had a mass exodus based on their town redefining itself in terms of going through massive crime, so everyone was leaving the city and running toward the suburbs. Our story in Macon is different, but what we take away from both of those cities is the passion that came back. The people there believe their communities are not to be written off. What we’re hoping to do is define our blight plan so that it’s not government-driven only. It is a collaborative effort through the entire community. It has to be sustainable. Money comes and money goes; $10 million will be here and in three, six and nine months, you’ll be saying what did you do with the millions you spent? But here’s something that stays with us always ... human capital.

Q: Where did you grow up, and did you see blight?

A: I’m from a small town of 6,000 people called Fitzgerald, which is one and a half hours south of here. Interestingly enough, 10 years ago I moved back home to take care of my parents and was disappointed at what happened to my neighborhood. I partnered with the local government there so we could make a difference. My neighborhood had been red-lined, which meant there could be no mortgages, therefore no improvements could be made. I disagreed. My parents wanted to stay in that section of town. It took some personal capital as well as some collaboration, and we redefined it. We tore down houses, and I’m pleased to say Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County is a leader in the state of Georgia. I know firsthand how this can be done. While it was done on a small scale, we did it. I know if my hometown can do it, surely Macon-Bibb County can.