Tax incentives couldn't jump-start a renaissance in Sand Hills, but maybe Jesus will.
On Monday morning, an army of middle- and high-schoolers from Baptist churches throughout the Southeast got started on a weeklong project to renovate 22 homes in the historic black neighborhood on the Hill. World Changers, sponsored by the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, brought about 370 teens and young adults to houses on Allen and Porter streets and First and Second avenues.
They stood on beams scraping paint off siding, climbed atop a tin roof armed with a pressure washer wand, pushed wheelbarrows loaded with shingles and painted the railing on a small house.
During the week they will make facade repairs, including painting and replacing roofs, windows and doors.
Asked why they gave up a week of their summer to do heavy labor in the heat, paying $250 to participate, each worker gave a similar reply:
"We're doing it for the Lord," said Joel Jeffcoat, 17, who lives in Evans and attends Curtis Baptist High School. He pointed up the street toward a work site he had just left. "There's a lady up there who's about 80 years old, and she can't do the work we're doing. You don't have to go overseas to do mission work. You can just stay right here."
Hannah Wilson, 13, a pastor's daughter from Danville, Va., spent the morning scraping paint off a shabby house on Allen Street, next to a barbed wire fence on the fringe of the Augusta Country's Club's expansion into the neighborhood. She had been up since dawn, and her arms ached, but she wasn't complaining.
"It makes me feel really good. It gets me closer to God," Hannah said.
The work is being done free of cost to low-income residents, most of them elderly. Homeowners had to apply to be included. The city is providing materials and has budgeted $75,000 for the project. In past years, the World Changers have done similar work in the Bethlehem, Turpin Hill and Harrisburg communities.
Brenda Dent, who lives in the Allen Street house, said it has been years since the country club made an offer on the house. In an effort to provide growing room and a space between the neighborhood and the golf course, the club has acquired more than a dozen properties on the north side of Allen Street, including the house next to Ms. Dent. She said she plans to stay, and took advantage of the chance for a free paint job.
"I couldn't pay nobody to do this," she said. "They were an answer to my prayers."
Sand Hills dates back to the 19th century and once housed the domestic servants, craftsmen and laborers for adjoining Summerville. In 1997, it was named to the National Register of Historic Places. Homeowners who rehabilitate historic homes, increasing their value by 50 percent, can apply for tax-assessment freezes.
So far, not one person in the neighborhood has taken advantage of the program, according to the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Sand Hills Neighborhood Association President Tim Wilson said that not enough people are aware of the tax incentive and that even if they were, the paperwork to fill out would overwhelm elderly homeowners.
Through the neighborhood association, Mr. Wilson has plans to make facade improvements to other houses, tear down and rebuild hopelessly deteriorated structures and clean up Summerville Colored Cemetery off Fitten Street.
"This is where I pick up from," Mr. Wilson said. "Some of the people that didn't get done through World Changers, we're going to go at."
Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.