DECATUR — City officials hope a Monday city council study session will help them seize on strategies to continue moving forward with Decatur's long-term neighborhood revitalization plan.
The study session will be held at 5:30 p.m. in the MacArthur High School cafeteria. No official action will be taken during the meeting, but City Manager Scot Wrighton said it will be devoted to "restarting" the sweeping initiative, the progress of which has slowed in recent months.
"The May 13 study session hopes to add a substantial amount of 'hard' objective statistical data about Decatur neighborhoods, and reach consensus about how Decatur can measure success as it pursues neighborhood revitalization," Wrighton wrote in a memo provided to city council members.
"I believe this will help provide clearer directions for the city council moving forward."
The revitalization plan, a longtime objective for city leaders, kicked off in 2017 after a period of input from residents. City staff gathered dozens of volunteers to brainstorm and identify possible solutions to the persistent and growing economic struggles of Decatur's core neighborhoods.
In following months, former Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus presented a wide-ranging report on possible programs and initiatives the city could undertake. Ideas ranged from tax incentives for city homeowners to make improvements to their properties to a city student loan forgiveness program to draw younger residents from other communities to Decatur.
Population decline and job losses have led to abandoned homes and decay in older residential areas for decades. This spurred financial challenges for the city, as revenue through local taxes and other fees have stagnated.
Wrighton's memo said the city's efforts to gather input from residents on the project have provided a large quantity of valuable information. However, he said, almost all of that information is "soft data," or statistical information that's not objective.
Prior to Monday's study session, city staff and neighborhoods identified as being in the city's "urban core area," such as Old King's Orchard and Wabash Crossing, worked to compile hard data on indicators like changes in equalized assessed valuation and condition of blighted properties.
The memo said city staff is recommending Monday that council members determine what other data they would need to create a timeline and preliminary budget projections for the initiative, that they decide what strategies they believe should be implemented as part of the plan and also determine how success will be measured.
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"You can study and talk for a long time, but it's time to start doing something," Wrighton said during a phone interview Friday evening. "And even that needs a little more focus ... If we agree on how revitalization is measured, that's important."
City leaders have acknowledged that the neighborhood revitalization plan has slowed due to different factors, including the departures of former City Manager Tim Gleason and Tyus. Both moved on to accept the same positions in Bloomington.
Progress for the initiative has since been made in the form of the city identifying and approving the future demolition of 46 vacant houses in Decatur and the acquisition of 750 Macon County trustee lots. The latter of those projects qualified as a use for some of a $1 million donation the Howard G. Buffett Foundation gave the city for neighborhood revitalization in 2017.
Buffett, a frequent financial supporter of Decatur-area organizations and former Macon County sheriff, specified criteria under which the funding could be used to help neighborhoods. During the State of the City address on May 1, Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe announced that Buffett's foundation donated an additional $1 million grant for the revitalization efforts.
Wrighton said the city still needs to work out how the latest donation will be used in regards to the initiative. He said there will likely need to be more study sessions about the revitalization efforts going forward.
Joyce Keller, a longtime community activist and volunteer in the Old King's Orchard neighborhood, called the interest in "rejuvenating" the revitalization efforts "great." She said she recently met with Wrighton to discuss the plan, and believes that if implemented, it could have a positive impact on the city.
"I'm just glad to see that they are going to continue to pursue revitalization," Keller said.