When I was 62, I founded Fulton Block Builders, a grassroots community revitalization program in Fulton, NY. For the past three years, the program has offered grants and incentives to homeowners to renovate their properties through an approach designed to restore neighborhood ties and community pride.
The problem I’m trying to solve
Like many other American cities, Fulton used to be dominated by nearby large manufacturers — in our case, the Miller Brewing Co. and Nestlé, which together employed more than 2,000 workers. After the plants closed, other businesses left and Fulton experienced high rates of unemployment, depressed property values and disrepair. Eventually, these blows affected the psyche of the city. Community residents had lost vision and pride in our hometown. I wanted to see if there was a way to bring those back.
Fulton Block Builders was formed to revitalize neighborhoods, block by block, and inspire pride and community camaraderie. We provide small grants to groups of homeowners to help them restore, beautify and ultimately transform their block. But it is not just about planting flowers, hanging a new storm door or trimming the hedges. Residents play a role in the decision-making process, the planning and the implementation of neighborhood projects. They must apply as a group, help one another with projects and plan at least one celebratory event.
The idea is to help homeowners feel more confident about their properties and more connected as a community. In 2018, our second year, Fulton Block Builders approved 24 distinct blocks and 212 properties for grants. For every dollar invested, property owners themselves invested 3.5 times that amount. Nearly $500,000 was invested in participating properties.
The moment that sparked my passion
A few years ago, someone wrote an article about the city, titled “Fulton, New York: America’s Sad Story ” for a newspaper in Syracuse. When I read the story, it felt like there was no hope and that everything was behind us. I was so saddened that people couldn’t see a future for the community. With that, I said, “I can’t sit back any longer. Something’s got to change.” It started with sitting on people’s front porches and talking about what could be done. Those conversations began to bring together a strong group of people, including some business leaders, who wanted to spark change. We got off the ground in 2017.
Advice to others who want to make a difference
People who want to become involved in their community should first look at their personal talents and interests. Let that be your launching point for involvement. There are so many ways that one can make a difference, from adopting a garden plot to coaching a team, starting a new program, running for office and everything in between.
Why my approach is unique
Traditional community revitalization waits until blight has become so severe that people have to be moved out and thousands of dollars are needed to rehab one property. Fulton Block Builders’ approach is to empower residents and landlords to take control of their neighborhoods, creating momentum to improve properties and reestablish the neighborly relationships that foster a supportive community. We don’t target blocks that are in outright distress or blocks where everything is working well. Blocks in the middle are the most valuable because they can generally be revitalized affordably in terms of time and money.
When you knew you had an impact
Because we tackle a cluster of homes together, the program is quickly creating ripples in the pond and catching on beyond the affected blocks. One neighbor will say, “Oh my gosh, look at everything that’s going on with all the properties around me.” We hear from people all the time who aren’t part of the program but are so inspired by what’s going on in their neighborhood that they’re spending their own money to rehab their houses as well. People are starting to feel pride in their city again. We’ve also encouraged businesses to offer discounts for things like landscaping, building materials and paint. They’ve all seen an increase in sales as a result of the block builder program. Nearby communities are now considering this model of community revitalization.