Charles E. Richardson

RICHARDSON: Sweeping a dirt yard

You’ve seen her. Like me, you probably can’t remember where you’ve seen her, but you can’t erase her image. When I first saw her, she was up in years, standing in the front portion of her old, but clean, home -- and she’s sweeping her dirt yard. Not a blade of grass to be seen, but she’s sweeping the dirt yard. I’ll explain later.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about our blight problem and our efforts to fight it. We’ve finally come to the realization that our soft underbelly of blight hampers our growth. In more plain language, we are now fighting blight because it is in our own self interests to do so, not necessarily because we want to provide a better lifestyle for those living in and around blighted properties.

To be clear, our motivation to erase blight is more about “us” than “them.” The “us” is the city-county leaders, property developers and others who stand to gain financially from investing in Macon-Bibb County. While a little self-serving, there’s nothing wrong with a self interest. The “them” are the people who live in blighted communities.

Now comes the county with $14 million in bond funds to begin the blight fight. And what do we have? A fight about how it is to be spent. While $14 million sounds like a lot of money, take a look around. Our blight problem is enormous, and so is the price tag.

There are two schools of thought among county commissioners: spread $9 million among the nine commission districts -- $1 million each. Bad, bad idea. One million dollars apiece is just enough money to guarantee failure. I don’t have space to list all the reasons why it’s such a bad idea, but let me just list one. How many commissioners are blight experts? I rest my case.

Unfortunately we live in a world of relationships. Sometimes those relationships can lead us astray, and I can only imagine the number of phone calls each commissioner would get from “constituents” if that idea seizes the day.

Mayor Robert Reichert wants to put the $9 million into three or four demonstration projects that will lure other investment and will be tangible for all to see around the city’s center. Granted, he’s just as susceptible to constituent calls as commissioners.

I suggest a third option. My mother used to say I spent money she gave me like it was burning a hole in my pants pocket. There is no rush. Blight isn’t going to run away and hide. We wish that it would. Spend a few months developing a battle strategy that will outlive everyone’s term of office because our blight problem won’t be eradicated anytime soon. The process of attacking it should be consistent and fair. Just because next year is an election year is no reason to go off and spend money unwisely. We won’t get a second chance at this if we flub this opportunity.

Back to the old woman sweeping her dirt yard. Trust me, this gets to the core of the blight issue. Was she just getting exercise? No, she wanted her yard to look neat. We might ask, “Why? She lived in not much more than a shack. Why sweep the yard?” Because it was her shack and her yard, and she took pride in what was hers.

I’m not a sociologist, but I see two types of blight -- one more insidious than the other. You can tear down a blighted property, but what do we do with a blighted mind? We could, if we had the financial will, erase physical blight in this county in the next 10 years, but unless we attack the mental blight it would all be for naught. In another decade, we would be right back where we started.

We can’t just erase poverty, but we can help change its definition. I see too much helpless poverty -- people who are happy with their lot in life even if they are surviving hand to mouth. Then there are those who are in aspirational poverty, meaning “I may be poor and living in a trailer today, but give me a few months and I’ll be living in a house, and after that ...”

Those are the types of folks Macon Area Habitat for Humanity and other organizations of that ilk reach out to. It’s a mental switch that has to be flipped to win this blight fight. And that fight is not just about money. It starts with small things, like clean clothes, a good work ethic and making sure the yard is swept clean.

Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at Tweet @crichard1020.