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Land for public park in Fairview purchased
Additional homes purchased
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After eight months of public discussion and around 20 meetings, Newton County has finally purchased the 18.14-acre lot in Fairview Estates, planned for a public park, as well as 11 houses in various neighborhoods.

The 12 properties cost a combined $1.05 million. Newton County received $1.74 million in Neighborhood Stabilization Program money, with $1.1 million allocated for purchasing properties. The county expects to purchase one more house with its remaining $43,350. The rest of the NSP money will go toward house rehabilitation, creation of the park, homeowners assistance and administration costs.

Most of the properties have not been paid for yet, but they are all under contract. Three houses were paid for Friday, including one each on Barshay Drive, Jack Neely Road and Mountain Way.

Technically, the 12 properties were purchased by the Rockdale-based Independent Educational Community Development Group, IECDG, the county’s non-profit partner for the NSP. IECDG is handling the grant paperwork and money, rehabilitating the houses and choosing and educating the families that will eventually purchase the homes.

A Long Road
When sitting down and talking with IECDG President R.J. Fields and CEO James B. Hellams, one can hear a trace of tiredness in their voice. Ever since residents of Fairview Estates first heard that the county was planning to buy houses and build a public park in their neighborhood, many have been outspoken in opposition.

They worried mainly about a public park’s effect on crime, home values, noise and privacy. Between May and late November, the county and IECDG held 14 meetings, some public and some with the residents. Along the way, more and more residents began to jump on pro-park bandwagon.

Some were truly convinced that the park was a good thing, while others simply felt that working with the county and IECDG was the best way to take control of their neighborhood and finally establish a resident-run homeowners association. During numerous meetings, Fields, Hellams and others emphasized they were committed to building consensus and working with the residents, no matter how long it took.

A vote between representatives from both sides was taken at one point, 4-1 in favor of the park, but despite the progress, it’s clear the community has remained largely divided. Gaining unanimous consensus among such a broad group was never likely, but IECDG is comfortable enough with its support to move into the final stages.

“Once you start to see the positive effects on the neighborhood, even though it got hot in the kitchen, even though things were political, we knew we had to be successful. We rolled up our sleeves and redoubled our efforts,” Fields said.

Fields said his organization is still in discussion with the county and residents about the park’s final design. The park has been referred to as a passive park, containing mostly greenspace with some walking trails and an open pavilion, but no basketball courts or ballfields. IECDG will be meeting with the residents again next week.

The county’s NSP budget calls for $200,000 to be spent on the park, but Hellams said IECDG is still trying to get supplies and manpower donated by Home Depot or other companies.

IECDG will not officially close on the park until an appraisal and survey of the land is completed.

Next Steps
Now that the properties are purchased, IECDG will begin rehabilitating the homes. Hellams said IECDG is a state-certified contractor and is able to do both rehabilitation and new construction.

At the same time, IECDG will be selecting homeowners from its pool of applicants and training them in financial literacy. Some applicants may have good credit but will need homeowners, or closing cost, assistance, while others may also need credit counseling. Fields said some owners already have financial certification from previous classes, and will be finalizing mortgages on their houses soon. The majority of the training and mortgage signing is expected to be completed by the end of February.

Counties and cities around Georgia received millions of NSP money, but all of that must be obligated, under contract, by Sept. 5. Because of the complicated nature of the NSP, many communities are having trouble spending their money and some have already voluntarily given money back to The Georgia Department of Community Affairs, the state agency overseeing the NSP.

Glenn Misner, DCA’s director of field services, said his agency will begin taking back money from non-performing communities beginning in mid-February and reallocating it to successful communities. The City of Covington already received an additional $75,000, and Fields said he expects Newton County will see some more money based on its recent successes.

IECDG has also pledged to continue to work in Fairview Estates even after the park is completed. The non-profit group will help the residents with the process of forming their own homeowners association, providing training and education about how to select members and run a HOA.

Bigger Goals
“The park opened Pandora’s Box to start dealing with the deficiencies in Fairview Estates. We got conversations going; people started talking and getting to know their neighborhoods. They’ve had festivals there. They got the Sheriff’s Office involved. We’re trying to address crime, education, everything,” Hellams said.

IECDG does work all around Georgia in several different areas. Hellams said the organization takes a holistic approach to social change; housing is just one aspect.

IECDG recently partnered with the FDIC and the Fulton County School System to start a financial literacy and practical banking curriculum. A pilot program just got underway at Creekside High School in Fairburn, Ga., and the JROTC classes are being used as the test subjects.

Working with the FDIC and its educational program, Smart Money, IECDG is attempting to train Georgia high school students in budgeting, banking and investing.

Beginning next school year, Hellams said the program will expand to eight Fulton County JROTC departments and the plan is to move it beyond the classroom and into the field.

Partnering with banks like SunTrust, and investment firms like Fidelity, Hellams said these students will actually be loaned money to purchase houses, rehabilitate them, rent or sell them to needy families and then invest the rent or mortgage money in stocks and CDs. Those profits would then be used to continue the process and to pay for students college education.

It’s an incredibly ambitious goal that Hellams hopes to expand to other states. He said the key is to get two powerful federal departments, the FDIC and U.S. Army, on the same page to really create change. Then low and middle-income students and families will learn how to manage money, build wealth and work with and trust the crucial banking and investment institutions.

Hellams said the program could soon come to Newton County’s school system, but even more quickly, an adult program for families involved in the NSP and other community programs will arrive. If everything comes to fruition, Hellams said communities will have a powerful tool for redeveloping themselves.