Pubdate: Sun, 13 Jun 2004
Source: Athens Banner-Herald (GA)
Copyright: 2004 Athens Newspapers Inc
Author: Joe Johnson


The west Athens neighborhood known as Henderson Extension may have its 
share of crime, poverty, blight and other serious problems, but that does 
not mean its residents have been forsaken by the larger community. In 
recent years, government agencies such as the Athens-Clarke County Police 
Department and Athens Housing Authority, as well as church and grass-roots 
organizations, have been developing ideas for breathing new life into the 
neighborhood, to make conditions better for those already living there and 
attract new residents.

During a recent walk through the neighborhood, also known by many as 
''Rocksprings'' for its proximity to the Rocksprings Homes public housing 
complex, one man at the forefront of improvement efforts pointed out the 
lone business the neighborhood once had, a grocery store at the corner of 
Henderson Avenue Extension and Columbus Street, now boarded up and under 
slow assault by encroaching kudzu.

''We're hoping to talk to Publix or some other grocery chain to see if we 
can convince them to open a satellite store,'' said Alvin Sheats, director 
of the Hancock Community Development Corp., a non-profit organization 
established in 2000 with a mission to revitalize Henderson Extension and 
other neighborhoods of an area of west Athens known as the Hancock 
Corridor, encompassing parts of West Broad, Baxter, Rocksprings, Pulaski 
and Old West Broad streets, as well as Hawthorne and Prince avenues.

Surrounding the former Justin's Grocery, which closed its doors earlier 
this year after operating for only several years, are vacant, boarded-up 
houses, some of which police said are used as crack dens and for 
prostitution. Half a block up, at the corner of Henderson Avenue Extension 
and Paris Street, loitered a small group of young men referred to by Sheats 
as ''street pharmacists'' - his term for street-level drug dealers.

Noting a lack of job opportunities in the area, in a community where 43 
percent of children fail to finish high school, Sheats observed, ''These 
guys are out here hustling, and while I don't condone that, I understand it.''

Successful strategies

During that walk of just a few blocks, Sheats was able to point out the 
three major problems plaguing the neighborhood: poverty, crime and lack of 
job opportunities.

Sheats is hoping that the Hancock Community Development Corp. will be able 
to help Henderson Extension residents pull themselves up by the bootstraps, 
by mirroring successes a similar group has enjoyed in a problem area of 
East Athens. Created in 1993, the East Athens Development Corp.'s mission 
was to revitalize the Triangle Plaza area, a neighborhood surrounding the 
site where Vine Street, Nellie B Avenue and Gressom Street come together.

The area was once known as the ''Iron Triangle'' because of its reputation 
for extreme poverty and a high crime rate.

One of EADC's success stories has been its outreach center, which provides 
a referral service to educate neighborhood residents about programs that 
are available to help in areas such as housing, employment, child care and 
health care. The center has also coordinated neighborhood watch groups, 
neighborhood cleanup and recycling efforts, free legal advice from 
University of Georgia law students and job-training seminars.

In its first 10 years, EADC has developed three basic types of programs: 
housing, education and finance.

Sixty-five people have taken business classes offered by the non-profit 
group, spawning 33 new businesses, according to the EADC. The U.S. 
Department of Agriculture awarded the corporation $50,000 to continue the 
classes, recognizing the success of a program that teaches how to write a 
business plan, develop a marketing strategy and draw a budget.

Sheats said his group had begun providing some career counseling, although 
not at the same level as EADC, and is just getting its feet wet in the area 
of developing affordable housing. Economic development is still a ways down 
the road, he said.

Learning to crawl

According to Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Tom Chasteen, the Hancock 
group is still taking baby steps, just as the EADC did a decade earlier.

''They are trying to collaborate with the (county) Department of (Human 
and) Economic Development and the Athens Housing Authority, but they are 
not quite at that point where they can carry the load,'' Chasteen said. 
''That's how things started for the EADC, and given time it will be 
tremendous what they can do when they are able to deal with grant-writing 
and focus specifically on that area.''

The Hancock Community Development Corp. is primarily funded by HED, which 
reduced its last year's contribution of $115,000 to about $78,000 this 
year. Chasteen said it was decided to provide just enough funding for HCDC 
administrative salaries until its personnel become fully trained in 
providing career counseling and grant writing.

''We had gotten a little ahead of the game, so we decided to step back and 
allow them time to become qualified and certified to be counselors,'' 
Chasteen said. ''Mr. Sheats is within a few hours of where he can be 
qualified to hold classes to help people manage budgets and that sort of 
thing so when they have opportunities to move into a house they will have 
the knowledge they need, about things like utilities, general upkeep, etc., 
in order to own a house.''

Businesses wanted

The small patch of land on which the former grocery store stands, at the 
corner of Henderson Extension and Columbus Street, is the only area now 
commercially zoned in Henderson Extension. Sheats said that is why bringing 
business into the area remains a long-term goal while the HCDC and others 
work to address the immediate problems of housing and job training.

Whether the neighborhood is rezoned in the future to allow in more 
businesses ''will have to be weighed against the elimination of housing'' 
it would cause, according to Chasteen.

''The first thing you have to do to bring businesses in is to stabilize the 
community to make it a safer community for people to live in and for 
businesses to thrive in,'' he said.

Once funded for economic development, Sheats said, the search for a Publix 
or other business to take the place of Justin's Grocery will commence.

''We need to bring in someone from whom people can learn to be 
entrepreneurs,'' he said.

HCDC is just beginning to become involved in developing affordable housing 
in the Henderson Extension area, a role now prominently played by Athens 
Housing Authority.

Getting into the ACT

The Athens Housing Authority is using its ACT I Homes program as part of 
its long-term strategy to aid in community efforts to develop affordable 
homeownership opportunities in downtown neighborhoods. Working with the 
HED, the authority receives federal Community Development Block Grant money 
and other funding to purchase vacant lots or abandoned houses in East 
Athens and the Hancock Corridor. According to agency literature, the 
housing authority then constructs new homes in a style compatible with the 
surrounding neighborhood.

To purchase an ACT I home, families must meet income eligibility 
requirements, but earn at least $18,000 per year; be able to obtain a 
mortgage; have some down payment funds available; be a first-time home 
buyer and be residents of Athens-Clarke County, housing literature states.

''The concept behind this is neighborhood revitalization,'' said Rick 
Parker, executive director of the Athens Housing Authority. ''When you have 
dilapidated units and vacant land in in-town neighborhoods, that property 
isn't generating much in tax revenues and not supporting the economic 
revitalization of the neighborhood.''

In East Athens, three ACT I homes were bought and sold by the AHA some time 
ago, Parker said, and another four recently came on the market.

Within the Henderson Extension area, he said, a total of nine properties 
have been acquired for the ACT I Homes program, all of which have existing 
houses on them. A review is under way to determine whether the houses 
should be demolished and rebuilt, or rehabbed.

''Neighborhoods can be healthy with a mix, and that mix includes home 
ownership,'' Parker said. ''Most people would believe having a homeowner in 
their neighborhood rather than a (vacant) lot is a positive, so home is 
something that in our community we certainly want to focus on.''

In its initial foray into housing rehabilitation, Sheats said, HCDC 
brokered a deal for a dilapidated house on Henderson Avenue Extension for 
rehabilitation under the ACT I Home program.

''That house was once a house of drug distribution,'' he said. ''There is 
an ongoing need for housing rehab over here, which is something we at the 
HCDC will be focusing on once we get the funding.''

Turning on The Light

Another person heavily involved in Henderson Extension improvement efforts 
is Mary Redman, director of The Light, a ministry of St. James United 
Methodist Church based on the corner of Paris Street and Henderson Avenue.

At The Light, area residents can pick up needed food items that are 
distributed weekly and eat at a soup kitchen. But the Methodist mission is 
concentrating its efforts on reaching the minds of children, through 
computer literacy training and mentoring, Redman said.

''I don't know if people wake up one day and say 'I'm going to deal drugs,' 
or whether it's just the environment they grew up in,'' she said. ''But I 
think some of the problem stems from people not knowing what's out there 
and available, or not knowing even what's inside themselves.''

Redman said with Henderson Extension's problems now under close scrutiny by 
the community at large, ''agencies are coming into the area, and hopefully 
we will see gaps being filled in.''

On the public safety side, a police substation is planned for next year at 
the corner of Baxter Street and Collins Avenue, the site of a former bar 
and grill that is just a few blocks south of Henderson Extension. Sheats 
said he expected to see a drop in criminal activity from the increased 
police presence the substation will bring.

''We still have concerns about our 'street pharmacists,' but I do believe 
in time we can correct these concerns, especially with the upcoming police 
substation,'' he said.

Athens-Clarke Police Chief Jack Lumpkin was scheduled to speak to residents 
Saturday during a gathering at Rocksprings Community Park, to bring them up 
to speed on the substation's progress as well as other efforts by his 
department to combat crime.

''I will remind the group that, as long-term residents and business owners 
of the area have known, the rate and severity of crime and order problems 
have been less frequent and less noticeable over the last six years, and 
thus, gentrification has become an option for many investors,'' Lumpkin 
said last week.

''Also, as long-term residents know, Henderson Extension has at least a 
70-year history of alcohol-dependent individuals frequenting that area,'' 
he said. ''National drug dependency studies seem to indicate that a 
significant percentage of individuals that once became alcohol-dependent 
currently are becoming crack cocaine-dependent.''

The police chief added, ''Of course we would like to see all drug sales 
eradicated from that area as well as other areas in Athens-Clarke County. 
Many of the individuals that frequent the area to sell drugs do not live 
within miles of Henderson Extension. The ACCPD will continue to arrest 
criminal and order violators in the area and seek their vigorous prosecution.''

Doug Bachtel, professor of housing and consumer economics at the University 
of Georgia, commended the multi-pronged approach being taken toward solving 
ills in what he called on of the most poverty-stricken areas of 
Athens-Clarke County.

''They're providing hope, but equally important they're providing 
structures so that folks can get jobs and stay in school, to provide the 
means so that people can work their way out of that situation,'' Bachtel 
said. ''Educational, vocational, housing, mentoring, transportation, day 
care - in order to solve these problems it has to be solved as a total 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jo-D