By Maria Saporta and Amy Wenk
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, December 14, 2012
As the deal for a new Atlanta Falcons stadium moves closer to the goal line, a parallel effort is under way to make substantive, lasting improvements to the neighboring communities of Vine City and English Avenue.
Arthur Blank, owner of the Falcons and co-founder of The Home Depot Inc., said in an interview Dec. 10 that the true measure of the stadium project’s success will not be the building but how positively it will impact the people living and working in the area.
“We have an opportunity and a responsibility to try to make a difference,” Blank said. “We view this as a unique opportunity to make a permanent difference in the lives of people in the community. It is not just the facility and the building. It’s about how we can change people’s lives.”
It is not the first time that the communities of Vine City and English Avenue have been led to believe that change was coming. The neighborhoods today face challenges such as declining population, vacant lots, boarded-up houses, crime issues and low graduation rates.
The dropout rate for students has been well over 50 percent for decades, Atlanta City Councilman Ivory Young has said.
And arrests are up about 10 percent so far this year in Zone 1, which includes Vine City and English Avenue, representing about 15 percent of the nearly 35,000 arrests in the city in 2012, according to Atlanta Police Department data collected through Dec. 1.
After decades of intermittent and unsuccessful efforts to rejuvenate their communities, residents are understandably concerned about how the new stadium will impact their neighborhoods and how they can benefit from the development of a $1 billion facility in their midst.
There is reason to believe that current initiatives may yield better results.
A multipronged effort is under way that includes a broad range of partners all focused on the west side of downtown Atlanta.
The city of Atlanta, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, the Atlanta University Center and other organizations are working to develop plans on how to breathe new economic life into the neighborhoods.
“We are committing our heart and our passion and our resources to work with partners,” Blank said. “We will spend a large part of the next six months trying to understand the issues and figure out how we can best work with the community.”
Blank, however, stopped short of saying how much his foundation is willing to commit to the west side initiative, saying it was premature.
The Blank Foundation, however, has been working in those communities for years.
Penny McPhee, president of the Blank Foundation, said that it already has established many relationships in the community through its normal grantmaking process.
Now the foundation is ramping up its efforts in anticipation of the new football stadium project.
The Atlanta Falcons Board of Advisors has been reconstituted so it can provide more guidance in how the Blank Foundation works with the community.
Among the new board members are Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank; Ingrid Saunders Jones, a senior vice president of The Coca-Cola Co.; and Robert Franklin, the outgoing president of Morehouse College.
Bolling said the Blank Foundation has been contributing to community efforts in health, wellness, education, children and green space. The foundation also has taken a bottoms-up approach to its investments, not wanting to dictate what it thinks is best — but following the will of the community.
The Blank Foundation has provided an initial $2,500 grant to the C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute to work with Neighborhood Planning Unit – L to build a coalition of community groups to address two issues: the proposed new stadium and the Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal.
“The coalition is needed because there is so much facing our community,” Yvonne Jones, chair of NPU-L, said at a Dec. 11 meeting.
Carrie Salvary, vice chair of NPU-L, also praised the selection of C.T. Vivian. “This is about us. It is about how we view ourselves and how we view our community. And what we feel we are entitled to.”
Bolling said the community is “not naive about what it takes” to revitalize their neighborhoods.
“This is not about one person, one grant, one building or one program that will make the community better,” Bolling said. “It’s about approaching it in a holistic way.”
The city of Atlanta’s economic development arm — Invest Atlanta — also is working to develop a plan for English Avenue and Vine City, according to Brian McGowan, president and CEO of Invest Atlanta, who reports to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Invest Atlanta has hired a community development consultant — APD Solutions headed by Jesse Wiles — to “make recommendations for the revitalization of these neighborhoods” — a process expected to take about seven months. APD will compile and review the various individual plans that have been developed for these communities but have often resulted in “weak” outcomes.
“The focus of this work is to compile all of the planning that has already been done into a revitalization plan that includes a strong economic development component,” McGowan said. “In addition, this work is intended to identify catalytic projects, which if approached collectively, would result in the reversal of the downward trend of these neighborhoods.”
Two other major initiatives also are under way.
Community organizations have put together an application to receive federal funding through the competitive Promise Neighborhoods program — to create stronger communities through better educational opportunities.
Many of the same players also are applying for another federal program — Choice Neighborhoods. That program seeks to transform distressed neighborhoods into sustainable mixed-income communities by linking housing, schools, transportation, jobs and other public amenities.
The Blank Foundation also is working with the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency to make sure the new stadium project will hire construction workers from the community.
It also has provided grants — in partnership with others — to support entrepreneurs, provide healthy foods in the community, provide culinary training to the homeless, provide pathways for people to gain technical skills and academic degrees, and expand parks and green space in the area.
These initiatives provide far more potential than what was offered when the Georgia Dome was built more than two decades ago. The business plan for the Dome included $10 million for a Community Housing Trust Fund to be invested in the communities around the Dome. But several residents said they did not feel the impact of that fund.
“I have worked in that community for going on 30 years,” Bolling said. “We have seen a lot of hopes and dreams, and we have seen a lot of those hopes and dreams smashed. There have been a lot of promises made to the west side that haven’t been realized.”
Bolling, however, said timing is everything. “I’m hopeful. It’s time to invest in this community. We have the right people on the ground. I’m encouraged.”
And the Blank Foundation is committed to helping transform the community.
“We know there is a huge opportunity and that the stadium is the catalyst,” McPhee said. “It would be a crime if we don’t take this opportunity to do something important, transformational, sustainable and long term in those communities. I think Arthur and his family recognize that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“We want to work with the mayor and the community and other investors to be one of the champions to transform this community.”