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Union Outpost in Ga. Begins Renewal

March 26, 2003

FITZGERALD, Ga. (AP) _ Thirty years after the Civil War, thousands of Union veterans moved to southern Georgia with their families to form a colony in the midst of their former enemies.

The industrious settlers laid the groundwork for the planned community of Fitzgerald, with seven streets named for Union generals and seven for Confederate generals.

More than a century later, many of the old homes around Fitzgerald’s downtown are crumbling and beyond repair. Frustrated city officials, in keeping with the town’s history, decided to take a bold step.

The City Council in 1996 declared itself a redevelopment agency with authority to condemn substandard properties, clear the lots and sell the land to anyone who would redevelop it.

Using a revolving fund of about $50,000 and a few federal grants, Fitzgerald has salvaged about 145 properties, turning 94 of them into new or refurbished homes.

``Bit by bit we can bring a neighborhood back,″ said Cam Jordan, Fitzgerald’s community development director. ``You can hit a few spots and bring back a two or three-block neighborhood.″

Large cities automatically qualify for federal redevelopment funds, but towns like Fitzgerald, 178 miles south of Atlanta, have to compete with other communities for a share.

Jane Massey, a community initiative coordinator with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, said Fitzgerald’s redevelopment program is unusual for small towns.

``We’ve been impressed with what they have been able to accomplish,″ she said.

The City Council wanted to do something about 200 or so ramshackle houses that had become sources of sanitation and health problems. They deprived the town of utility revenue and lowered property values, Jordan said.

Also, the creaky structures were in an area that desperately needed decent low- to moderate-income housing. About 2,700 of Fitzgerald’s 8,758 residents have earnings below the poverty level.

Rather than put in sewer and power lines for new subdivisions on the outskirts of town, Fitzgerald officials decided to revitalize the town’s oldest neighborhood and use the utilities that were already in place.

``Housing is a big responsibility of local government,″ Mayor Gerald H. Thompson said. ``We wanted our money invested downtown.″

Faye Jackson, a nursing home worker, once lived near an abandoned house that was a gathering place for drug users. She was the first to get a new home _ a Habitat for Humanity house _ as a result of the project.

``It has really lifted my spirits,″ she said. ``It’s an honor to me. I was the first. I went down in history.″

Susan McGee, the department’s director of grant administration, said small communities usually don’t have the staff or inclination to tackle such ambitious projects.

``The fact that they are willing to put such an effort into it shows a strong commitment,″ McGee said.

Fitzgerald residents are proud of their unique heritage.

The town was named for Indianapolis attorney and newspaper editor P.H. Fitzgerald, who formed the company that purchased land for the colony that welcomed ``all good people.″

People poured in to escape a Midwestern drought and a nationwide depression. The town’s first schools opened in the fall of 1896, serving children from 38 states and two territories.

The settlers, including 2,700 veterans, built homes that reflected the architectural styles of their regions, such as American foursquare from the Midwest, Dutch Colonial from Pennsylvania, and classic revival, a popular style throughout the country.

Jordan said the city didn’t tear down any historic homes that were salvageable.

``We worked hard to keep from losing a house,″ he said. ``With this program in place, we’re in a position to catch a historic structure before it’s too late.″


On the Net:

City of Fitzgerald: http://fitzgeraldga.org/main.html

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