Rubbing the wrong way: It’s not dark in here for lack of lamps.

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There was a press conference yesterday to formally announce the $6.7 million Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant awarded to New Albany for work in the S. Ellen Jones neighborhood. Despite some coordination issues (with the presser, not the program), it’s encouraging when group rubbing leads to an actual genie appearance.

We know the drill: The City will purchase and renovate approximately forty homes, build up to 10 new units, and then sell them at affordable prices. Even with administrative costs and price incentives, a substantial portion of the original financial allotment will be returned to the City at the time of sale to be reinvested for the same purpose in accordance with federal guidelines, allowing the process to be repeated on an incrementally smaller scale.

With the hiring of local firms and the purchasing of goods from local suppliers, the money will cycle through our local economy many times over. Property values will rise, jobs will be sustained and created, the neighborhood will, in fact, become more stable, and the revenue generated by those activities will aid in curtailing budget shortfalls in various levels of government.

The significance of the dollar amount was rightly touted in the Tribune as being “worth about half of New Albany’s annual city budget.” Its potentially transformative magic has been extensively discussed and sufficiently aahed. Like I said, it’s encouraging.

Here’s what’s not so encouraging: With the proper initiative, we could have done it or something similar on our own. The City Council sat on $5 million in reserves this year. With our additional annual influx of EDIT funds in 2010, our stash will be roughly equivalent to the NSP grant amount. The genie’s lamp has been in our hands the whole time. What’s missing is the foresight and political will to use it, largely from a City Council who typically blames the mayor for their lack of engagement anyway.

If we take in approximately $2 million in EDIT funds annually and $6.7 million is enough to renovate, build, and sell 50 homes to single family owners, we could replicate an NSP-style model, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, every three to four years with purely local dollars. Does anyone think 50 totally new or correctly renewed homes in their neighborhood might make a difference?

What happens when the funds returned to the program via sales provide financing to complete another conservatively estimated 15 or 20 homes in the same neighborhood? What if the neighborhoods were approached in a row, with the second right next to the first and so on, extending the pattern? Does 130 total home renovations within a mile or so sound appealing?

What would the revenue capture do for our tax base? What would a more stable neighborhood do for our school achievement scores? Our crime rates? Might the private market respond with increased confidence and investment, especially if they knew more improvements were coming?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that every last slice of EDIT funding be given over to home renovation. What I am suggesting is the scale and multiplicity of return that would be possible if the council took a sincere interest in revitalization and fiscal sustainability, actually using their time to learn about and seek investment opportunities and best practices that would benefit the city over the long term instead of engaging in the often purposeful ignorance to which we’ve become accustomed.

Even if a partial but sufficient EDIT amount were pledged each year to deal with the most egregious and/or visible properties in a systematic way, remarkable improvements could be made in conditions well beyond the properties themselves.

It doesn’t take magic. It takes intellectual honesty and earnestness. And that no one has granted them.

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