Atlanta officials travel well, but how does that fix blight?

ATLANTA -- Tina Arnold is quitting after more than a decade as a volunteer leader fighting blight in her Atlanta neighborhood. She said she's burned out and has received no help from the city despite her pleas.

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Matt Kempner
, Cox Newspapers

ATLANTA -- Tina Arnold is quitting after more than a decade as a volunteer leader fighting blight in her Atlanta neighborhood. She said she's burned out and has received no help from the city despite her pleas.

So imagine how she felt when she heard the latest funny business involving former Mayor Kasim Reed and associates.

Particularly this one: A nonprofit created by the city's business recruitment arm to help distressed and blighted communities made its first investment -- $40,000, cost of business-class airfare upgrades so Reed and his entourage could be comfy on what was pitched as an economic development trip to South Africa last year.

What audacious irony. Partners for Prosperity apparently found roomy airline seats to be the only investment worthy in three years.

What a gut punch for people already facing tough odds to make Atlanta's most struggling neighborhoods more economically viable.

"You have stuff like this and you are banging your head against the wall," Arnold told me. "You could have put this money to good use with people who do a lot with nothing."

For years she urged the city to deal with vacant, dilapidated buildings in her Lakewood Heights community of south Atlanta. She even asked for a meeting with Reed, which she said the mayor's office never scheduled.

"They could never help us get the houses fixed, so we started doing it ourselves," said Arnold, who launched an all-volunteer nonprofit, Sustainable Lakewood. "We have about $25 in the bank."

Volunteers boarded up buildings they didn't own, painted, hauled off trash (one bad lot consumed five mass clean-up days), cut grass and spread mulch.

They rustled up a donation to buy one of the troubled houses, Arnold said, but the city refused to excuse an $8,000 clean-up lien it had placed on the property under a previous owner.

That would have been one fifth of the price tag for blessing the mayor and his crew with more leg room and an amenity package on their flight to South Africa.

"I can believe that," Kelvin Tate told me. "I've seen the mayor's SUV pass me a couple times."

That would be the one where the mayor's team would pop on the blue lights apparently to avoid getting stuck in traffic like the rest of us.

Tate's 29, a heating and air conditioning tech living in northwest Atlanta and trying to save enough money to buy a home with his girlfriend. Their apartment is near a string of vacant, partially roof-less apartment buildings. Many people walk to get where they need to go. Or take a bus.

He told me he can understand why the mayor and seven other city workers and officials would want the extra comfort.

But he quickly rattled off other ways Partners for Prosperity, the city-launched nonprofit, could have helped Atlanta's economically distressed areas without having to pay for flights to another continent.

How about fixing or tearing down the dilapidated apartments he passes? Or holding health fairs to help residents get expensive medical problems under control? What about providing more reading programs? Improved rec centers? Parenting classes?

In fact, some business leaders, including Dan Cathy of Chick-fil-A and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, are investing in trying to improve struggling areas of the city.

As it turns out, the spending by Partners for Prosperity was part of a giant shell game.

Approaching his last days in the mayor's chair, Reed asked the city council in December to dole out $40,000 to the organization. Coordinated by Invest Atlanta CEO Eloisa Klementich, Partners for Prosperity's board later voted to repay the city under the premise that it was to help cover some of the costs of the South Africa trip.

In official accounting terms, I think that's called a switcharoo. Or maybe a head fake.

The convoluted shenanigans apparently were intended to make it appear Reed fulfilled an earlier commitment to have a non-governmental entity ultimately cover the pricey airfare upgrades. (He had taken heat last year when local reporters broke stories about the South Africa trip's hefty costs.)

So far, none of this seems to have made any difference to the blight in Lakewood Heights.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Scott Trubey and Channel 2 Action News' Richard Belcher interviewed Partners' board member Klementich, who wasn't on the South Africa trip.

She told them that officials who were on the trip heard about a green jobs hub, an urban agriculture program and support for creative industries, all of which helped thinking for programs planned in Atlanta.

"What I think is important," she said, "is that the city learn from best practices throughout the world so that we can have stellar programs here in Atlanta that really address this community revitalization that we are trying to do and really address the needs of our economically distressed areas."

Trubey asked, "Yeah, but do you need extra leg room to accomplish that?"

Klementich remained silent for about 12 seconds.

"Ma'am?" Belcher asked.

There's really no good answer.

Matt Kempner writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: mkempner(at)ajc.com.

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