Self-help centers: Reagan-style renewal?

Has Kevin Johns got what Ronald Reagan wants? Quite possibly. As founder of a five-city string of nonprofit architectural design centers, Mr. Johns is helping to put struggling neighborhoods back on their feet. And he does it with an emphasis on what is a pet Reagan philosophy - self-help.

President Reagan himself probably hasn't heard of Johns's centers, which mix neighborhood ideas and elbow grease with a little public and a lot of private dollars.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), however, which helps fund the five centers, is quite familiar with what Johns is doing; so familiar, in fact, that HUD Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr.'s staff now is considering whether to grant Johns a $3 million, three-year contract to set up 30 more centers around the country.

''The administration is interested in having local communities help themselves,'' says Barbara Dorf, a community planner in HUD's Office of Policy Planning, who has reviewed Johns' program. ''(This) is a good example of what could be done.

''We are interested in the program,'' she continues. ''Interested because it has successfully helped local communities implement CD (community development) programs through a coalition of grass-roots ideas leveraged by private dollars.''

Mr. Johns, who attended a recent National League of Cities conference on urban design here, set up his first center, the Community Design Center of Atlanta, in 1975. Since then, other centers have opened across the Southeast: in Knoxville, Tenn.; Louisville; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Columbia, S.C.

Each center has a community-based board of directors made up of professional planners, city finance and housing directors, and community leaders, who evaluate and approve or disapprove proposed projects - all of which are generated primarily by low- to moderate-income neighborhood organizations.

Projects have ranged in scope from the approximately $400,000 renovation of an abandoned hospital into a neighborhood convention center, to a current $10 to handicapped, an entertainment complex, a restaurant, and a community arts facility on the site of an abandoned park.

Self-help is emphasized: Neighborhood groups whose proposals are accepted must sign contracts that require them to appoint a project manager. The manager must meet with the center staff every two weeks or face cancellation of the project. In addition, although the center is responsible for drawing up plans and outlining investment packages, it is the neighborhood group that must take that information and convince local bankers or private contributors to invest in the project.

Besides self-help, the centers emphasize another favored Reagan theme: Pay your own way. According to Johns, all projects are designed to be self-supporting or, ideally, profit-making. In addition, Johns has estimated - and HUD has confirmed - that for every $1 HUD puts in his program, he is able to generate another $20 in local investment.

''We want to make a project turn a dollar, and attract private dollars,'' he explains. ''I got into this to help stabilize neighborhoods, to plug neighborhoods into the system so they could stop (the decline) themselves.''

Since 1975, says Johns, 67 percent of the projects started by the Atlanta center have been built - aproximately 60 projects. Requests for help come in at the rate of 10 to 15 per month and are postmarked from as far away as Indianapolis, Tucson, Ariz., and Fresno, Calif.

Johns' centers are part of what is loosely referred to as ''the third sector'' - nonprofit organizations who work as middlemen in bringing the public and private sectors together. In a period marked by cuts in federal aid and leaner city budgets, say urban experts, third-sector groups - with their skilled staffs and resources - are likely to play an increasingly important role in revitalizing the nation's cities.

''The government simply cannot afford to be as heavily involved in programs as it has been,'' contends Donald Dodge, HUD's deputy assistant secretary for program management, community planning, and development. HUD, he says, is looking at ''how to encourage third-sector groups to step up where government steps down.''

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