As Boondoggles Fail, Market Forces Come to Rule

President Lyndon Johnson nearly four decades ago said that government programs would make the long-impoverished Summerhill neighborhood here a place of “spacious beauty and lively promise.” Instead, it’s become a place of boondoggles.

One of the latest is FanPlex, a state government-funded arcade/miniature golf course/fast food joint located at 768 Hank Aaron Dr., near the stadium where the Atlanta Braves play — but pressure is growing on local politicians to give up on FanPlex within the next several weeks.

The entertainment center came into being last year as well-connected officials decided they could justify their salaries by saying they were giving poor “chilluns” recreational opportunities. The chilluns, though, have decided to do other things. On the Saturday afternoon I visited, with a Braves game three hours away, a total of four children were playing videogames; about 70 videogames were unused. The miniature golf course was deserted.

The Taco Bell a block away had a line at its counter and its tables filled, but the FanPlex staffer on duty had time for contemplation and no need to wipe down his unused outside tables. As the Atlanta Journal and Constitution commented, “Taxpayers would have been better off if the $2.5 million” spent on Fanplex “had been tossed into a bonfire. At least taxpayers could have kept warm for an hour. Instead, they’re going to get burned for years.”

That’s nothing new. For years, government dollars have led to waste, and wasted lives. Lyndon Johnson’s appointees boasted that “the most modern federal-state-city planning, housing, training and social welfare techniques” would “transform the slum core into a modern area.” Tens of millions of governmental dollars flowed into the pockets of middle-class officials, contractors and social workers. Over 10,000 residents — one-third of Summerhill’s population — left, as welfare dependency and crime increased, and those who could afford to move out did so.

Community political power has also created messes. Atlanta’s Bob Lupton, president of FCS Urban Ministries, helped Summerhill’s community development corporation harvest cash and commitment from foundations and corporations, but the project “absolutely crashed on the rocks” as immediate political and financial gratification came to outweigh the long-range vision. After his Christian group handed over land, houses and money to the Summerhill CDC, Lupton said, “we ended up with no capacity to deliver on our commitments. We were rightly motivated but very unwise.”

Lupton noted that the Summerhill experience pushed his organization to develop a new rule when working in other neighborhoods: “Don’t subordinate to community politics your ability to fulfill commitments. … In subsequent neighborhoods, we’ve established a true partnership. When we make an agreement, we have the legal capacity to fulfill it. We’ll be the land assemblage entity, we’ll buy the land, we’ll hold the land in accordance with the agreed-upon plan, it won’t be reliant on subsequent political intrigue. The partnership has clearly defined roles.”

Where politics failed, market forces have taken command. On some better Summerhill blocks, homes priced at $269,000 boast “new construction with downtown skylines views.” On other blocks, older homes have been rehabbed, but with crime still a problem, many broken-down houses show huge bags of dog chow on sagging porches. Others, not so subtle, display large dogs tethered by long chains.

As affluent urban villagers move in and land values increase, some Summerhill residents may be priced out. Markets can be brutal; as Wilhelm Roepke wrote in “A Humane Economy,” capitalism works best with a Christian sensibility. FCS Urban Ministries tried to bring that but failed in this instance; it’s doing better elsewhere.

Yet one lesson is clear: Government initiatives have repeatedly failed, with politicians who use taxpayers’ money for follies like FanPlex showing themselves to be not public servants but public exploiters.