Entitlement isn't guaranteed for everyone -- we must work together

The Erbelding Building on Broad Street, dating to about 1870, sits empty in this photo from last November. While some debate whether downtown Augusta can be called a "slum," a better question would be: How can Augustans join together to seize the city's myriad development opportunities?

By one definition, “An entitlement program is a government program that guarantees and provides benefits to a particular group.” The notion of economic development and the word “slum” being used in the same sentence seems contradictory, doesn’t it?

We’ve seen and read announcements about new companies locating to Augusta, existing business expansions and new jobs being created, and we are happy about it. Cities nationwide are considered “entitlement cities,” and Augusta is one of them. When you consider the word “guarantee’” in the above definition of an entitlement program, it implies that no matter what, you can receive whatever it is you’re guaranteed.

 

THAT GUARANTEE, however, can create a sense of complacency in people and a community – if you know beyond a shadow of doubt that whatever situation you’re in, you’re having to do very little to obtain that “guarantee” you will receive a designated amount of dollars.

So what can happen? You create and maintain your lifestyle to fit in the “guaranteed” amount, so you do the very least to receive what has been promised to you. What incentive is there for you to do any more than that? So there’s little expectation and very little hope for anything more than what you’re already accustomed to, and life simply goes on with little to no change.

And so the cycle begins – and once a person has become complacent, it’s hard to get out of that situation. Just like losing weight – it’s taken years for the pounds to pile on, and we realize it’s going to be harder to get them off. It will take a strong and concerted effort to make changes in our lives and lifestyles.

Recently there was an outrage in this community about the bureaucratic use of the word “slum” in an economic development tool called an Urban Redevelopment Area. Our local elected officials are considering this approach to enhance economic development efforts in the downtown area. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “slum” as “a heavily populated urban area characterized by substandard housing and squalor.”

There has been an effort – some just talk and some actual progress – to revitalize downtown since the late 1970s when the larger retail stores moved to the malls (Augusta Mall and the former Regency Mall). Plenty of ideas have come from community and business leaders. Studies have been done. Initiatives to clean up downtown and reduce crime are being proposed.

 

NEW CONDOMINIUMS have been built and sold. Small-business development and entrepreneurship are alive and well in downtown Augusta. If you were to venture on some of the streets off Broad Street, you will find some neat little boutiques and professional services businesses. Most of us are aware of the larger, and sometimes controversial, new developments now present in the center of downtown Augusta.

So with all the growth, real or perceived, and continued efforts to make Augusta the best it can be, now some city leaders want to call downtown a “slum” so more money can come to the city to create more economic development. Oh my.

How many new jobs will be created? Who will get these jobs? Are there partnering opportunities with our Department of Labor that connect those currently unemployed with the prospective jobs that can be created with this new potential stream of money? Is downtown actually a slum based on the definition I’ described? If you ask people that question, you will get different responses. Just the perception of the word “slum” conjures up an unhealthy and unpleasant image that most people don’t want to see or believe exists.

 

THERE ARE LAWS and programs that have been in existence for years, and some will say that’s just the way it is. I think the difference now is that people are more informed and engaged than ever. People are paying attention and want to be heard. They want to be respected. Many have ideas, opinions and solutions to some of the world’s problems, and some here in Augusta.

The problem is that they are not listened to. Some people are loud in their approaches to resolving problems, and others are a little more subtle. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be heard. We all have different personalities, and learning how to deal with them takes effort by building relationships and getting to know one another. When you build relationships, you build respect and trust, and ultimately opportunities for effective communication.

For too long, elected officials – I’m not speaking of any one in particular – have been given the go-ahead to make decisions that should be in the best interest of the citizens who voted them in office (and for those who didn’t vote for them). When there is economic development without economic opportunity, the question becomes: Where is my piece of the pie? I’m not speaking of a handout – I’m speaking of diverse groups being able to sit at the table with all these entitlement opportunities and be made aware of them so they can make a decision to become a part of the progress.

 

A BETTER QUESTION could be: Where is the ability or opportunity to get a piece of the pie? That question is being asked, and rightly so.

There are a lot of angry people in Augusta. They are angry for different reasons. That anger isn’t necessarily toward any one person, but a combination of circumstances, occurrences, people and things that have happened over a period of years. So it’s like a tea kettle that’s been left on the stove, screeching after the water starts to boil. That sound is ringing loud all over the city. Maybe people are not angry at all, but the perception is that they are. Either way, perception or reality – the anger is there.

 

PEOPLE OF ALL races and ages and are asking themselves: Is my life today any different from four years, eight years, 12 years ago or beyond? Now it works both ways, in that we have to become more proactive and aggressive in our pursuits. We can’t expect that a new opportunity, job or good feeling about living in Augusta will just drop on our doorsteps without some effort on our part. We all have to take responsibility.

But what about the compassion? Whatever happened to family? Whatever happened to people caring and loving one another? Whatever happened to a praying community?

No longer can we simply say “It’s not my problem,” or “It’s not happening in my back yard.” We are all in this together. It’s tough-love time. We have to pick up the pieces and make this thing called life work for us individually and collectively. We together can help Augusta unite, and thus have success and prosper in ways the city never has before.

I believe if the citizens of Augusta saw some signs of progress, success or hope in their neighborhoods, their streets or their areas of the county on a regular basis – or if more people were employed and working as a result of these entitlement revenues – the level of outrage at new economic development initiatives wouldn’t be as loud, because they would understand.

 

THAT SUCCESS could be as simple as a piece of playground equipment being repaired after sitting idle for months, or a sidewalk installed in a neighborhood so the kids can ride their bicycles, or the yard cleaned up in an abandoned house next door. Right now, many of us don’t or haven’t seen the positive signs, so the cycle and frustration continues. People want to know how the fact that Augusta is an entitlement city makes a direct impact on their lives.

There is still time to break this cycle. Despite what some people might see as no progress, there is progress going on in Augusta, but not enough people are experiencing the progress. That must change. It has to change for our children – our next generation of people who are looking at many of us in dismay. It’s like playing the lottery – if you don’t play, you can’t win. But if someone doesn’t know the lottery game exists so they can play in the first place, then we have a greater problem. And that’s what has to change in Augusta. The change must first come from our hearts and souls. In our families. In our homes.

Proverbs 13:12 says that “having no hope for our situation makes our heart sick.” I don’t believe we have hit rock-bottom, but there is much work to do. A community of compassion, relationship-building, respect, trust and love can be the change that many of us want to see and experience. So the next time someone asks you how your life is different from what it was four, eight, 12 or more years ago, you can respond in a very positive way. After all, you’re entitled to it.

 

(The writer is an entrepreneur, author, youth advocate and mental health advocate in Augusta.)

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