Making Vidalia a Better Place
One House At a Time
Vidalian Debra Brown moved into her new home on Fifth Avenue this week. After 15 years of renting, she finally has a place of her own. “It’s like a dream,” she said.
Brown’s hope of owning a home was realized in part due to her own merit—she has been a responsible citizen and an employee at McDonald’s in Vidalia for 17 years— but also because a group of local citizens who have a vision to make the world a better place took note of her worthiness and included her name on a list. She would become the first person to benefit from the work of the nonprofit Urban Revitalization Group (URG).
On Wednesday, April 7, Brown, several City of Vidalia officials and members of URG gathered at the home site on Fifth Avenue to celebrate the completion of URG’s initial project. Among those attending the ceremony was Bernard Stanfield, a regional McDonald’s representative who had worked with Brown for 14 years when he managed the Vidalia store. “She is an excellent employee,” he said of Brown. The Brown house is the first house in an entire block of derelict houses
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that have been targeted for renovations by URG. The project, which takes the houses down to the studs and rebuilds them, is expected to consume the better part of a year, but when the work is complete, it will transform the neighborhood.
Leo Peeples, who retired from military service, heads URG, a 501c3 organization. The group operates with volunteer supervisors whose backgrounds are predominantly retired military. “They are in charge of logistics. We hire laborers and tradesmen for construction, electrical and plumbing work and we try to use local people,” Peeples said. The organization has also benefited from volunteers like local resident Jimmy Mc-Call, who donated his backhoe and labor to help out. URG’s projects are financed through donations. “People began to hear what we are doing and started making donations to get this project up and running,” Peeples said. The organization has also gotten donations of materials and equipment, such as refrigerators and air conditioning units. “We are looking for a volunteer who can help us set up a website,” Peeples added.
The organization receives referrals of potential clients from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), and domestic violence shelters like The Refuge, which is based in Vidalia. “We work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development through a program which assists people who have never owned a home before,” Peeples said. URG interviews and selects referred candidates, but its work does not end once the candidate is chosen. URG works with the clients for no less than two years, coaching them on the mechanics of home ownership, from how to finance the project to how to pay taxes and conduct home maintenance.
“We counsel them on what it takes own a home. We stay hand-to-hand connected with them for two years. That is approximately the time required to acclimate to home ownership,” he said. All of the houses in the targeted block on Fifth Avenue have already been matched to clients. The next property in the series of renovations will be finished within a couple of weeks and its new owner will move in. Another house next door to the Brown house will be tackled soon.
The row of houses will be named the Roy Lee Williams Complex. Rodney Williams, one of the volunteers for URG and the son of the late Roy Lee Williams, said his father was a Toombs County Commissioner for 28 years and a pastor for over 30 years. Rodney Williams, who is retired from service in the military, has helped with construction and supervision of the project.
Vidalia Mayor Doug Roper summarized the city’s role in URG’s work. “This is a partnership in terms of like mindedness. The City obviously has reason and a desire to address some of the blight and rundown, dilapidated housing that we have in town and this group wants to do the same thing.”
While the City won’t be investing money in the project, it will lend support where possible, Roper said. “It’s about revitalization and hope. I see this as an opportunity for people who have never been home owners— taking these houses and repurposing them and providing citizens with affordable housing.”
At the ceremony to welcome Brown into her new home, Roper thanked the URG for its efforts. “This is just (an example of) people who think the same way coming together for the good of our community. This is a way for a private group to partner with the city to provide affordable housing for our citizens that has not been available.” He thanked Leo Peeples, James McClendon and Rodney Williams, “who have been instrumental in seeing this project to fruition. You have been here from day one with a vision and a plan.”
He closed by noting, “I think this can be the footprint for what we want to try to do in other parts of our community. We could not be more thrilled to see you (Brown) getting this first house.”
The City of Vidalia has also been working hard to combat blight through its Dilapidated Housing Program. In the last four years, through its General Fund Budget, the City of Vidalia has demolished 108 houses, secured another 26 structures and repaired or renovated 13 houses. One house has been donated to Vidalia Area Habitat for Humanity. The approximate cost of demolishing a house is $2,000 to $3,000 and if asbestos has to be removed, costs can increase
substantially. Jimmy Kirby, as City of Vidalia Assistant Marshal, has been in charge of the City’s Dilapidated Housing Program since he was hired four years ago. Since he is focused on fighting blight, he is all too familiar with the worst areas. “That section (on Fifth Avenue) was by far the worst section in Vidalia. It was shockingly bad. There was trash everywhere, doors were pushed in and there were all kinds of things inside the houses.”
The row of 1950s, shotgun-style houses was scheduled to be demolished, but just a few weeks ahead of demolition the owner of the houses notified the City that he wanted to sell them. “When the new owners bought the property and shared their vision for this block, the City leaders were more than happy to support the project. We cleaned up the overgrowth and hauled it away,” Kirby said. Kirby hopes the project on Fifth Avenue will inspire more revitalization in the City. “Some houses are beyond repair but if some can be saved and repaired, it is a better outcome. When the whole block is done it is amazing, uplifting. You don’t even realize how beautiful a lot is until it is cleaned up.” Vidalia City Manager Nick Overstreet said, “I am thankful for what this is group is doing to make our community a better place to live. When you have partnerships like this in the community, it is neat to see what can happen.” Those interested in donating to the URG can contact Peeples at: [email protected] yahoo.com.