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Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2006 05:09 am

Renewing the spirit of Atlanta

When 39 Springfield leaders got together and saw what can be done

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Just over a decade ago, in October 1995, Springfield saw a huge outpouring of civic energy into what has become known as “the trip to Atlanta.” That’s when 39 of Springfield’s movers and shakers — leaders from the fields of politics, business, education, and religion — miraculously came together for a 24-hour adventure in the land of “what can be done.” The tremors are still being felt, but it’s time to do something like that again.

Dr. Naomi Lynn, then chancellor of the University of Illinois at Springfield, had worked in Atlanta with Dan Sweat, who became executive director of The Atlanta Project under the leadership of former President Jimmy Carter. In 1994, Lynn brought Sweat to Springfield to speak at a Springfield Urban League luncheon about TAP, which had successfully garnered money from Atlanta’s business community to help the city’s low-income neighborhoods and schools improve. You don’t just go helping people, was the lesson of TAP. You provide resources and empower people to help themselves. That’s the way to lasting change.

Sweat invited his Springfield listeners to come see for themselves. With the help of Larry Golden, UIS professor of political and legal studies, Lynn organized the trip. She expected five to seven people to sign up, but instead she got a large response. The Dominican Sisters of Springfield were among the first to sign on, sending Sisters Helen Becker and Mary Jean Traeger. Karen Hasara, the new mayor, agreed to go and brought with her staff members Mike Pittman and Mark Gordon. Former Mayor Mike Houston, then with Bank One, joined the delegation, along with the influential architect and planner Wally Henderson. Gordon McLean, then pastor of First Presbyterian Church, went along, as did Jerry Doss, pastor of Abundant Faith Christian Center. The Chamber of Commerce was represented by Brad Warren, District 186 by Superintendent Bob Hill. There were others who always help out, whom Lynn calls “the usual suspects,” including Rudy Davenport, Doug King, Sheila Stocks-Smith, Guerry Suggs, and Cathy Schwartz. I can’t name everybody who went, but you get the idea. This was a powerful group.

Henderson remembers that in Atlanta, big companies such as Coca-Cola were involved. How could Springfield duplicate that? Springfield architect John Shafer remembers a bus trip into Atlanta neighborhoods that seemed rougher than any here. Some who went can’t remember much of what they did there, only that they went there, together. “The biggest thing we accomplished was getting that group together for 24 hours,” recalls Golden, “and they all saw firsthand that something could be done.”

Translating the hope and enthusiasm of a weekend trip into a working organization was no small feat, but by the spring of 1996 The Springfield Project had been born, with several committees and task forces made up mostly of “Atlanta pilgrims.” In the absence of a Jimmy Carter here, Howard Humphrey of Franklin Life served as TSP’s “ambassador” to round up money. The fledgling organization got significant funding from the Dominican Sisters, and, with the backing of UIS and Lincoln Land Community College, it won a $500,000 multiyear grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The primary emphasis was neighborhood enhancement. Using TAP’s model of helping residents to help themselves, TSP began in 1997 to organize the residents in a deteriorating, largely minority-populated 21-block neighborhood north of Cook Street on the city’s near east side. The group moved from beautification projects to building a neighborhood association. Later it established a separate group, the Home Ownership Program for Equity, which has helped residents move from rental to home ownership by building new homes in what has become known as the Mather Welles neighborhood.

For more than half of its life, TSP has been under the leadership of Tim Rowles as executive director. He has helped organize two more neighborhood associations on the east side and has put together “beat circles” programs to help neighborhoods identify their biggest problems and prod police and city officials to do something about crime, trash, and vacant buildings. A summer youth-employment program gives 20 kids a job, a paycheck, and valuable experience.

Much has been done in the past decade by the group the Atlanta pilgrims started, but there is much more to do. The demise of the South Grand Cub Foods store highlights the economic plight of an area where boarded-up buildings dominate a landscape of vacant lots strewn with trash. Meanwhile, there’s been turnover among Springfield’s leaders and leadership and banks and businesses have consolidated or moved on. Is it possible to duplicate now the civic hope and enthusiasm that came out of the trip to Atlanta? Can we renew the spirit of possibility, and focus it on Springfield’s neighborhoods once again?

Fletcher Farrar, president of Illinois Times, is chairman of the board of The Springfield Project.

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