'We’re going to go to the middle' — How Restore SGF is selecting historic Springfield neighborhoods to fix up homes
Our Sense of Community series on the City of Springfield's comprehensive plan, Forward SGF, looks at some of the goals identified within the plan's five core elements. In this segment, we're looking at a plan to improve some Springfield historic neighborhoods — Restore SGF.
It’s 2005 — July 23rd, specifically. Downtown Springfield is revitalizing. And it’s still a long time before the Great Recession clobbers the boom years of the 2000s.
The editors of the Springfield News-Leader run a quick item on their opinion page. It praises the Urban Neighborhoods Alliance “for collaborating to return a blighted, drain-on-the-neighborhood house in Grant Beach back into a single-family home.”
The editors write that this “pilot project could open the way for others to rehabilitate similar houses.”
Skip ahead to 2023.
It's a wet spring morning. Coming early next month: A city council election that could be critical for Springfield’s redevelopment policy.
The Urban Neighborhoods Alliance is long gone.
“That was one thing, it was always on a shoestring,” said Rusty Worley, Downtown Springfield Association director for 15-plus years.
In the Great Recession era, the Urban Neighborhoods Alliance faced budget cuts as home foreclosures soared in Springfield. After the group didn’t file their tax paperwork for three years running, the IRS revoked their nonprofit status. That was 12 years ago.
A renaissance for historic home repair programs
But the idea of using a land trust and fixing up houses in Queen City historic neighborhoods lives on as I discovered when heading to an old house being renovated by Blue House Project in the Grant Beach neighborhood.
“Hey folks, Greg with KSMU —
Blue House Project's Amy Blansit quickly saw me. “Hi Greg!” she said.
Years ago, Blansit started the Drew Lewis Foundation in north-central Springfield to improve the area. They’ve already repaired 17 houses before joining up with a new push called Restore SGF.
Restore SGF is a bit like the old Urban Neighborhoods Alliance. But this time, City Council adopted it as a priority in Springfield's new comprehensive landuse plan — Forward SGF. In July, Council also gave the group $1 million in federal taxpayer money through the American Rescue Plan.
I caught up with Blansit while she was hanging out with three construction workers at a house in the heart of Grant Beach.
"This house looks pretty rough," I said, "but these guys are hard at work, so what do we have going on?"
Blansit replied, "So this house, um, for about the last 10 years was one of the biggest nuisance properties on this block and — "
“You called it a ‘long term druggy house’ in a text.”
“I did call it a long-term... I was trying to be, you know —
“Descriptive,” I replied.
“Exactly," Blansit said. "But now, it was the biggest problem house. We had police here on a regular basis. A lot of people who had warrants. We generally had an undercover officer here 24/7 just pulling the next person with a warrant off this property.”
Now that Blansit’s nonprofit bought the property with cash, workers are nailing studs for the walls. The floor’s been replaced with brand-new concrete, and the gutted house will soon be repurposed as a garage for the home next door. That place has a new roof and other improvements made in connection with Blansit’s nonprofit. She says a veteran single dad lives there now.
Restore SGF’s backers would like to see outcomes like across multiple historic neighborhoods.
I asked Blansit, “So the City is wanting to do this kind of thing at scale through Restore SGF — "
“Correct,” she replied.
“—very similar to your Blue House Project with Drew Lewis Foundation. Can you talk about what you think might happen, what your hopes are for that?”
“So I’m on the board of Restore SGF," Blansit said. "The city had looked at — we have a nuisance property issue, but we also have individuals who own their homes who maybe don’t have the funding to fully do an investment of beautification or just basic maintenance, so this project is now its own nonprofit, it has a board, what we’re going to be looking at is securing funds that’ll be matching dollars so if we can get three or four neighbors together that all want to reinvest into some beautification of their property. Some of them will be smaller projects like that, $2,000 or $3,000, but there’ll be larger ones, too.”
He's not running for re-election. He's helping to run Restore SGF.
Blansit isn’t the only community leader to share the notion of mixing bigger and smaller renovation projects and building momentum among private homeowners as ways to make historic parts of Springfield more livable.
One of Restore SGF’s biggest boosters is Springfield City Councilman Richard Ollis. He’s an insurance executive and a fourth-generation Springfield resident. For Ollis, homeownership is a critical issue Springfield needs to address.
“Young people just aren’t buying homes as soon as they normally would," Ollis said. "However, in Springfield it is a more significant issue than it is anywhere else in the state and almost anywhere else in the country.”
Ollis says Restore SGF will concentrate resources on what he calls “middle” neighborhoods.
“What do I mean by the middle? We’re not going to go to the neighborhoods that are doing great, and we’re not going to go, initially, to the neighborhoods that are in the toughest shape. We’re going to go to the middle. That’s where we can have the best impact.”
That means Restore SGF won’t focus on cheaper affordable housing. Why not? In the next segment of Sense of Community, you’ll hear more as Councilman Ollis and other sources tell Ozarks Public Radio about what they hope Restore SGF can accomplish in the Queen City.
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