Saving Harrisburg

Joan Kroc doesn't live here. There's only so much she can do for Augusta.


We have to do the rest.

The late widow of McDonald's restaurants founder Ray Kroc bequeathed $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army in 2003, designating the money for state-of-the-art community centers across the country. Augusta asked to get one of them, and did: The $35 million recreation, theater, banquet, worship and multi-use campus on Broad Street recently opened for early-bird members, and celebrates its grand opening Aug. 6.

It's no secret, and it's even part of the Kroc Center grand plan, that local officials hope it will help revitalize the woebegone Harrisburg neighborhood it touches on the banks of the Augusta Canal.

But if the community thinks we can sit back and let Joan Kroc's vision be the sole savior of the neighborhood, then we'll only be fooling ourselves and dishonoring her generosity.

Even after the Kroc Center is in full swing, it will need our help in turning Harrisburg around.

That it needs turning is etched on Lori Davis' frustrated face.

The Harrisburg homeowner and lead citizen advocate is still at the end of her rope when it comes to getting drug houses, dilapidated and vacant structures, as well as drug and prostitution traffic, removed from the downtown hamlet.

At one point, she and her husband were so fed up with one vacant and nuisance-attracting house that she notified the city they'd be boarding it up themselves. A game city official met them and persuaded them to give him time to solve the problem.

But game officials are few and far between, by her reckoning. Davis managed to get momentum going on a proposed "chronic nuisance" ordinance some time ago that would've forced negligent landlords and owners to the table to work things out. After legal concerns stalled the effort -- officials say state law must be tweaked to fully account for property owners' rights -- Davis figures little has been achieved.

She does credit the city with reducing the number of cellphone-clutching loiterers on street corners -- a sure sign of drug trafficking -- and with cracking down on a house or two. But she's unimpressed with the city's response at other addresses, one of which she says had 80 pages of complaints on it.

She also wonders why she was never asked word one about her grievance filed with the city against a code inspector, which seems to have gone nowhere.

City Administrator Fred Russell said Augusta is "a big city with lots of issues and limited funds; setting the priorities on how to use those dollars is always the tough part."

Mayor Deke Copenhaver isn't so sanguine; he makes a strong case that things are indeed changing for the better in Harrisburg.

He notes that he personally made a significant donation to the Georgia Conservancy's recent blueprint for Harrisburg, and that the "Turn Back the Block" effort of the Augusta-Harrisburg Fuller Center for Housing is making big strides in rehabilitating housing and revitalizing morale. Except in summer, the group has "block party" workdays once a month, in an effort to turn renters into homeowners.

President Anne Catherine Murray said the program just had its second homebuying applicant approved.

In addition, Copenhaver told us in an e-mail:

"The Georgia Planning Association has won a grant to host an informational, hands-on session based around the concept of aging-in-place. They are calling their event 'Lifelong Augusta' and are planning on holding the event in Harrisburg (Sept. 15 and 16) to focus on some redevelopment recommendations from the Blueprints process.

"My understanding is that the GPA, along with Georgia Conservancy and other host organizations, are scheduling speakers for a day-long event in Harrisburg, with an additional evening discussion. The event will focus discussions on the mobility, public health, and housing challenges related to a community's ability to be a 'lifelong community.'

"Having the GPA take note of our progressive redevelopment efforts in Harrisburg would illustrate to me that the neighborhood is now receiving notice not just from Augusta, but from the state level as well!

"When you add all this up, I would say that there's a sustained effort by many organizations and individuals, including the city, to redevelop Harrisburg and that these efforts are definitely working."

It may be that Davis is overly critical, and may not be giving folks enough credit. But we admire her chutzpah and drive in her effort to turn Harrisburg around, and Murray has nothing but encouragement for Davis.

As the community coalesces around a revitalization of Harrisburg, we continue to urge City Hall to beef up its code enforcement efforts, and for the sheriff's office to keep the heat on the scofflaws.

There's a lot to do. A range of approaches won't hurt.