Fixing up without federal dollars: one town's way

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Downtown stores painted; a concrete-block headquarters for the local Boy Scouts built on an overgrown, donated lot; land for a city park cleared; a community center renovated and a new basketball court built; a townwide cleanup, not just with brooms, but with paint brushes, weed cutters, and trucks to haul debris -- and all without federal funds or even much state help.

In a period when federal funds for many town and city projects are being cut back and tax revolts are pinching state funds, Byron has shown what people can do without dipping into the government till.

And Byron-style efforts can work in big urban areas across the country, too, says Georgia Community Development official Jay Hardy. Apparently, determination, not the size of an area, makes the difference.

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It's not that Byron (pop. 1,666) spurns federal funds. Town officials try to get them -- but they rarely do because the town has too low an unemployment rate (about 3 percent) to qualify for many federal programs.

But that has not held back major improvements in the town in the past few years. People were asked to pitch in with their talents and time, and they did.

"Work, work, work, work, work is what we did," says Frances McDaniels, city clerk and a key organizer in Byron's bootstrap progress.

Across town, electrician Tommy Smith, one of the town's main volunteers, leans against a pickup at a construction site.

"We're not gonna sit back and wait on the [government] money," he says. "If you get two or three who believe it [a local project] can be done, it'll be done."

And that's the strategy used to get the Scout center built on the edge of town.

"There's not a penny of labor in that building," says Smith. Kids and parents built it. He "paid" the kids with a smile and soft drinks, Mr. Smith says.

Parents brought dinners to the hungry work crews. Money for materials was raised through barbecues and raffles, he explained.

Another big money-raiser for Byron is their annual "Battle of Byron." For $1 per event, participants can enter a wide variety of races on bycycles and tricycles, in sacks, or over obstacles. Or they can challenge the mayor or anyone else in marbles, bubble-gum blowing, basketball free-throwing, or even in wriggling inside an old hula hoop.

Community groups also raise funds on Battle of Byron Day, selling hot dogs and souvenirs. More than 5,000 people attended last year. This year's all-day "battle" is May 2.

In 1979, Byron won first place in the state community development contest, winning $500. In 1980, the town won second place.

"What they [state community development officials] are trying to do is get you to do for yourself and stop begging for federal funds," says Mrs. McDaniels. Driving through the town, she points out other recent changes.A new police and fire station (built with town funds) and the local doctor's office. Volunteers cleaned up an empty building for the office to help attract a doctor. Benches have been built with self-help labor at the local grade school ball field.

She drives across the tracks, leaving the white section of Byron behind. "The blacks start here," says Mrs. McDaniels, as we enter Toomerville, the black neighborhood.

During the self-help drive, volunteers replaced a deteriorating wooden floor with a concrete one in Toomerville's community center. A basketball court was built nearby.

But Dorothy Jean Canady, a college student whose home is Toomerville, says jobs, improved sewage, and sidewalks are still much needed. Her mother says few blacks have shown much interest in "speaking out" about how to spend town funds.

George Hamlin, another Toomerville resident, says "better police protection" and a "place to go" for recreation are needed.

"We're just beginning," says Byron Mayor Lawrence Collins. "You won't recognize the place the next time you come back."

Ahead, he says, are plans for several more parks. And once again, the town will be looking to volunteer help instead of waiting for uncertain federal funds.

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