The internet and listservs have been abuzz about potential taxpayer funding for a new Falcons stadium to replace the fully functioning but somehow obsolete Georgia Dome. As part of this deal, Blank’s PR from his Foundation has kicked into high gear promising investment into Vine City, the impoverished area just to the west of the current Dome location. Vine City has been home to a Tax Allocation District for some time that’s not been showing to be paying off – meaning the property tax rates that were expected to increase have done the opposite generating no potential revenue or bonding ability for the area.
To its credit, the Foundation has moved away from the traditional model of “community improvements” such as a token community center or health clinic that isn’t fully funded and is talking about “human capital”. By human capital. do they mean looking at the long-term growth of the community? Increasing after-school programs, and infrastructure improvements are mentioned by the Foundation, but nothing concrete. Instead the Foundation cites upcoming meetings with community leaders and a pending coalition. What do we mean when we say long-term strategy? Do we mean only property-tax value?
Some things history should teach us about any community investment:
1. Simply doing a cosmetic makeover of infrastructure is not enough – replacing lightbulbs and repairing sidewalks are much needed, but do not automatically translate into economic prosperity for any region. Sure having new sidewalks is great, but where does that get you? What Vine City needs are places to walk to, jobs to walk to, and streets and schools that are safe and vibrant. Investment needs to be more than a makeover.
2. Target long-term investments aimed at lifting the economic capacity of the existing population already living in Vine City – We’ve seen this scenario before as in Capitol View, Freedom Park and other areas. Buldozing abandoned houses and erecting new condos does not help those currently living in the neighborhood, nor do random “job training” programs. Atlanta has a serious “mismatch” problem where the skills of its low-income residents do not match the jobs that are available and accessible for these same residents. As Atlanta continues to expand and sprawl, the availability of jobs that match low-income worker skills and the cost of transportation to these jobs has become a huge barrier for in-town neighborhoods such as Vine City because these jobs have dispersed beyond the transportation ability of this population. The Blank Foundation needs to look at this spatial mismatch and target its long-term strategy at working with individuals who live in Vine City and matching their education and skill levels appropriately while at the same time identifying and coming up with solutions to bridging this geographic barrier between skill and job. This is no simple task; its going to be a long-term project that’s dependent upon full community belief and committment to this strategy.
3. Use home-grown solutions from the community even though they may not all succeed – this involves everything from locally grown food and markets to supporting local owned businesses who need a help getting to a next or even first step. Creativity abounds everywhere in Atlanta and in all neighborhoods. By working directly with individuals and collectively with neighborhood businesses, the Foundation can help identify small business ideas and models that match the long-term needs of the community, and it financially support these efforts with direct investments and in-kind help.
4. Make any new stadium and the current Congress Center and Dome someplace people want to walk to as opposed to only driving to – Anyone who has driven to the Dome knows that you do not see Vine City or are unlikely to see any of its residents even though the neighborhood is located directly across Northside Drive. One of the major indicators for potentital economic activitiy is a neighborhoods’ access. For low-income neighborhoods where car ownership and access to public transit is limited, the ability to walk from place-to-place is often overlooked but highly needed. The current Congress Center and Georgia Dome offer nothing but parking spaces and empty garages to residents not just of Vine City but all the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s time to change this. Why not offer safe, walkable streets that go immediately into both venues? The potential revenue from foot traffic to local business is quite large and developers would do well to see the long-term advantages of this. Need proof? Look at what developers already have discovered about Turner Field and it’s surrounding area, though it took them almost 20 years! Ever been to Denver or other major cities whose stadiums and sports venues have direct foot traffic access to surrounding neighborhoods? Compare those to the current cement wasteland surrounding ours.
5. Go big or go home – In-town, mostly minority neighborhoods have had their fill of token development. The old neighborhoods along what is now DeKalb Avenue being bulldozed to create MARTA rail lines in the 70s were promised massive economic development, but instead got gentrified into places that look almost nothing like the original neighborhoods, Vine City was promised development before and even given a Tax Allocation District when the Congress Center and the Dome moved in, Capitol View was to be the new hot thing with the building of Turner Field, and the list goes on and on. Why shouldn’t Vine City become its own identity of a strong neighborhood not unlike what Virginia Highlands, Home Park or other similar neighborhoods in Atlanta have become without being bulldozed?
If the new stadium is to be a reality which it appears headed that way, and if Atlanta has made these development mistakes before in regards to local neighborhoods, isn’t it time we tried something different? Something that’s in the best long-term interests for our current and potential residents? Let’s drop the “if we build it they will come” approach and focus on our current assets – the strength and will of our people and neighborhoods that made us an international city.