City of Atlanta making second try to win $30 million Choice grant

By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Jan. 23, 2015

W hen Atlanta lost the highly sought-after federal Choice grant awards in 2014, to say city leaders were disappointed would put it mildly.

Atlanta had been one of six finalists for the $30 million neighborhood revitalization grants that ended up being awarded to four cities – Columbus, Ohio; Norwalk, Conn.; Philadelphia, Pa.; and Pittsburgh, Pa.

But the city of Atlanta has bounced back. It is busy improving its application for a $30 million Choice grant to improve the Vine City neighborhood as well as the communities around the Atlanta University Campus and Ashview Heights. The deadline is Feb. 9.

“It’s going to be a lot stronger,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said about the city’s Choice grant application. “We were close last time. A lot of things are coming together. The stars are lining up.”

Reed had an opportunity to meet with Julian Castro, U.S. Secretary for Housing and Urban Development (HUD), on Saturday, Jan. 17, while Castro was in town for the Operation HOPE Forum and for the King Center’s Salute to Greatness dinner. The two met privately a couple of times, once to have barbeque together. Castro had complained that he could not find good barbeque in Washington, D.C.

In an interview, Castro encouraged Atlanta to reapply for the Choice grant.

“Of course we would be pleased to get an application from Atlanta,” Castro said. “I see great things happening in Atlanta with the leadership of Mayor Kasim Reed. I’m hopeful Atlanta will apply again. I know there’s a lot of need in Atlanta. It’s clear that Atlanta has significant momentum in the urban core.”

Joy Fitzgerald, interim president of the Atlanta Housing Authority, is putting together a new application for Atlanta. As a finalist, the city was able to have a debriefing with HUD to find out why it did not win the grant in 2014.

“We needed to be more specific about our strategies and how they were going to be accomplished,” Fitzgerald said of the feedback Atlanta received. “This year, Atlanta’s story is much crisper.”

A Choice grant of $30 million would double the amount that has already been committed to the communities around the new Atlanta Falcons stadium. The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation has pledged a total of $15 million to be invested in the Vine City and English Avenue communities. It has already begun dispersing those funds for workforce training and other human services.

And the city of Atlanta has allocated $15 million from the Westside Tax Allocation District for Vine City and English Avenue, and it already has awarded nearly half of those funds to community organizations.

Several other programs also are underway.

Friendship Baptist Church has ambitious plans to create a “Downtown West” development that would include its new sanctuary as well as residential and retail projects. It is joint venturing with the firm McCormick Barron to develop its plans.

The Chick-fil-A Foundation continues to be interested in investing in the area, especially to create a legacy youth athletic and academic center to honor founder Truett Cathy, according to Executive Director Rodney Bullard.

“It’s still early,” he said when asked about their plans.

And Mayor Reed recently announced the formation of the Westside Future Fund, which could be a nonprofit entity that could accept gifts from corporations and foundations interested in investing in the communities around the Falcons stadium, set to open in 2017.

Richard Dugas Jr., president and CEO of homebuilder PulteGroup Inc., will chair the Westside Future Fund board, and the organization currently is looking for an executive director.

Also several property owners are looking at opportunities to redevelop vacant land between the stadium and Castleberry Hill, an area that has been paved with park-for-hire lots that fill with cars during football games and major events.

Fitzgerald said the city’s application is stronger because of all the partners that are involved this time around. AHA and the city are co-applicants. Real estate developer The Integral Group is representing the housing portion of the application, and Invest Atlanta is representing the neighborhood angle.

Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, Spelman College and Clark-Atlanta University are involved as well as United Way of Greater Atlanta and Atlanta Public Schools.

AHA also has hired EJP Consulting Group, which has worked on several winning Choice grants, to help prepare Atlanta’s 2015 application.

Fitzgerald said the goal was to get all the different groups working in the adjacent communities to coordinate their efforts and collaborate as partners.

Asked when the city could find out whether it has been selected for a 2015 Choice grant, Fitzgerald said: “I would absolutely expect for us to find out sometime this year.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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