The City of Fitzgerald, Georgia, founded as a Union veteran’s colony in 1896, has boasted unity and equity unique to its times for 125 years. Whether it be creatively redeveloping neighborhoods, enhancing educational and career opportunities, or embracing change rather than risking division, Fitzgerald has a history of finding civil ends to uncivil wars.
By 1996, Fitzgerald numbered just under 10,000 residents and most neighborhoods were in serious decline with limited housing options since developers didn’t consider low-to-moderate income buyers a viable market. While home to 30+ industries, workers were forced to to seek homes in adjoining counties, oftentimes traveling 20 or more miles for their jobs.
After a series of abatements, renovations, and studies of traditional Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) housing initiatives, Fitzgerald realized it needed to control the lots in need of redevelopment and attract private sector investment.
A target property list was established and made public, with a six-month corresponding amnesty period to clean up voluntarily before the redevelopment plan would require re-establishment of minimum standard housing. A new Community Housing and Infrastructure Program (CHIP) application shifted traditional rehab monies to down-payment assistance, incentivizing homebuying over remodeling.
While there was still limited interest from developers for stick-built construction, a local manufactured housing company began building double-wide homes on permanent foundations with traditional roofs, porches, and street fronting doors. Soon developers saw an opportunity to package redevelopment lots with manufactured housing and have a salable product in concert with CHIP assistance. Meanwhile, the city partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build a house that was used to convince builders that more money stood to be made in stick-built housing.
Though still unsure about redevelopment lots, several builders were beginning to spot the untapped workforce housing market and new subdivisions were requesting annexation to take advantage of the down-payment assistance program.
Regency Investments decided to pursue a Low-Income Housing Tax Credit project in Fitzgerald. With the city’s full cooperation, it was funded. Simultaneously, the city received the first competitive in-fill housing CDBG award in the state.
By 2008, seven local contractors were building affordable housing . Over 600 units of workforce housing are on the ground and over 700 blighted properties have been resolved due to the initiative.
Fitzgerald High School College & Career Academy
As a rural school system in South Georgia, the graduation rate and overall College and Career Ready Performance Index for Ben Hill County Schools was disappointing. As the county worked to bring jobs back, there were not graduating students who could fill them.
In response, an educational summit of businesses, education stakeholders, and political leaders was held and focused on improving the partnership between the school systems, community, and businesses. After several years of summits, research, needs assessments and surveys, it was decided that Fitzgerald needed a college and career academy.
After an initial grant application was denied, a decision was made between the participating school systems to move forward with plans for the academy, to be comprised of five academies:
In 2018, after adding another school district to its proposed student body, the academy applied again to the Georgia Office of College and Career Academies (CCA) and was awarded one of three, 3.2-million-dollar College and Career Academy grants.
A 20-person board of directors, reflecting a diversity of stakeholders, oversees the FHSCCA, which is fully functioning with college and career tracks in place.
The ’22-’23 school year will see the first graduating class having full advantage of the College and Career Academy benefits, but the fruits are already visible in student participation in work-based learning programs.
Fitzgerald for Change
A shared desire to bridge cultural divides gained momentum because of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the worldwide cry from the death of George Floyd. Community leaders planned a diverse community-wide march that drew over 300 participants with a shared desire to speak out against racial injustices.
Born out of the unity found through the success of the march, the Fitzgerald for Change (FFC) Community-wide Initiative was established. FFC works in three different ways to build a more equitable community.
1. Community-Wide Forums
Monthly Zoom discussions have included conversation on topics including: Racist versus Anti-Racist; What is racism to you; and Unifying the Community, what will it take? Forums include community leaders and panelists who are carefully chosen to ensure the representation of all demographics.
Many participants have said that the conversations are eye-opening and have resulted in increased concern for others.
2. Community-Wide Survey
To better understand and share the stories of the entire community, a survey was developed. Questions were open-ended to allow participants to freely tell their stories. Questions covered various facets of racism and asked how race affects life in Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald for Change committee members promoted the survey to their spheres of influence and the local utility company agreed to add it as an insert in resident’s bills.
Survey results will be widely available for all to see and gain a better appreciation of the community’s story.
3. Community-Wide Civic Discussions
FFC is in the planning stages of a series of community-wide discussions to explore residents’ sense of belonging and learn how to create a more welcoming community.
Discussions will include:
The insights gathered from these conversations will help shape an inclusive strategic community plan and will inspire a greater sense of belonging and inclusion among all residents.