Harrisburg residents sign solidarity pledge in fight against crime

If the squeaky wheel gets the oil, some Harrisburg residents are working to make the distressed neighborhood the squeakiest in Augusta when it comes to crime reports.

Activists and church leaders are circulating a petition asking everyone to immediately report anything suspicious and each and every violation of law to the Richmond County Sheriff's Office -- right down to violations of the city's obscene language and loitering ordinances.

H. Kelly McKnight, the pastor of Bible Deliverance Temple, has been taking the "Harrisburg Community Declaration of Solidarity Against Crime" door-to-door in the neighborhood, asking residents to sign a pledge to "exercise vigilance, not vigilantism" and "stand united, unafraid, neighbors helping neighbors, determined to take back our community from those who would divide us through illegal activities."

"I think that this will get more people involved and aware," the Rev. McKnight said.

Being circulated with the petition are flyers with excerpts from the city's ordinances against lewdness, indecent exposure, obscene language, loitering and loafing. There's also a list of suspicious things to report, such as the sound of breaking glass, screaming, apparent business transactions being conducted from a vehicle and persons loitering around schools and parks. Those who sign pledge to dial 911 only in the event of an emergency, and the nonemergency dispatch line -- (706) 821-1080 -- otherwise.

"Our goal is to have everybody within the bounds of Harrisburg read it, or have it read to them," said Butch Palmer, the founder of HONGKONG -- Harrisburg Organization Networking for Gentrification to Keep Our Neighbor from becoming a Ghetto -- and a Harrisburg-West End Neighborhood Association board of directors member. "To clean up the neighborhood, we have to set a standard, because this behavior is not normal to a neighborhood that is predominantly homeowner-occupied."

Sheriff Ronnie Strength said he welcomes the eyes on the ground, and if summoned, a deputy will respond. But because manpower is limited, if his department were to be overwhelmed with calls from Harrisburg, at some point they would have to be prioritized. For example, deputies would head to a burglary in progress faster than they'd check out a report of a teenager wearing trousers below his buttocks, the sheriff said.

"We're going to do everything we can to help the good folks in Harrisburg," he said.

IN ANOTHER MEASURE being taken to clean up the neighborhood, the group that staged the Fourth of July protest march against absentee landlords and drug peddlers is planning a second demonstration not in the streets of Harrisburg, but outside a landlord's house in the upscale Forest Hills subdivision.

A dozen residents met at march organizer Lori Davis' home Tuesday night and resolved to picket in front of the Lake Forest Drive residence of John B. Weigle Jr., on Aug. 8 at 10 a.m.

Mr. Weigle, who sells insurance for Dawson Taylor & Co. on Wheeler Road, owns 223 Eve St., one of three properties targeted as a "nuisance" during the July 4 march. He did not respond to voice messages seeking comment Wednesday, and efforts to reach him earlier this month resulted in a missed phone call.

Mrs. Davis, vice president of the neighborhood association, said she has received more than 20 complaints about 223 Eve St., from neighbors during the past year and a half. According to the reports, an assortment of men who don't appear to live there lounge on the porch and in the front yard day and night, sometimes walking to the corner of Ellis and Eve streets to make cell phone calls. Cars with out-of-county and out-of-state license plates come and go, and the property itself is an eyesore, Mrs. Davis said.

"These are signs -- signs -- of houses that deal drugs," she said.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

HELP FOR HARRISBURG

Some Harrisburg leaders have expressed outrage that their city commissioner, Betty Beard, is working to steer millions of dollars to Bethlehem and Laney-Walker in tandem with the TEE center project, but not to their neighborhood.

Last week the city's Housing and Community Development Department applied for $50 million in stimulus funds through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Neighborhood Stabilization Program. If the full amount is awarded, $4.7 million would go toward revitalizing Harrisburg, according to department director Chester Wheeler. Goshen, downtown and Marion Homes would also benefit.

When ratification of the already-filed application came up at Tuesday's commission meeting, Ms. Beard rebuked City Administrator Fred Russell because she and other commissioners weren't consulted beforehand. Mr. Russell said he and Mr. Wheeler were trying to make the July 17 application deadline while lining up developers with backing from lending institutions, and had the process been held up Augusta wouldn't be in the running for the funds at all.

The commission voted 6-3 (Joe Bowles, Jerry Brigham and Joe Jackson opposed and J.R. Hatney absent) to send the application matter to its Administrative Services committee. The commission also voted Tuesday to grant a request for $25,000 in start-up funds for Good Neighbor Ministries' Harrisburg Family Healthcare Clinic, to be located at the corner of Crawford Avenue and Hicks Street.