HOPE FADES Project aimed at independence changes status after 20 years

Published 11:30 pm Saturday, October 20, 2012

Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1992, The Initiative opened its doors to nine families who had the same goal — to get off welfare.

The single parents would live in new but modest homes. They would go to school and hold jobs while their children would be cared for in a safe environment just yards from their homes.

The outlook was so hopeful, even the city street in front of the complex where a drive-in theater once had been located off Clay Street and Baldwin Ferry Road was named Hope Street.

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Twenty years later, The Initiative is gone. Thirteen homes are in the complex, but tenants, just as in commercial establishments, are required to pay monthly rent. The day care is shuttered.

Debra Rader has lived at the complex since before it was sold. To her, the change means she now must rely on her mother as a baby sitter for her 3-year-old daughter, Kimani, and drive to the county each day.

“I had to put Kimani in Head Start,” Rader said. “We’ll know in a little bit how it’ll go.”

In September, The Initiative Inc. sold the five-acre complex and its 13 houses to Blue River Management LLC, operated by Joyce and Ben Blue of Vicksburg. The day care closed in the summer.

“The program that was there is no longer in place,” Joyce Blue said, adding rent for the homes will be nearer market rate than before. She didn’t, however, rule out applying for housing subsidies.

Blue said she’ll “look to lease” the old day care building for another preschool.

“It’s private property now, and tenants will have to be able to pay the rent,” Blue said.

Completed in 1992, the Initiative was a creation of former Mayor Robert Walker and overseen by V’burg Inc., a public-private corporation that channeled a mix of funds from Vicksburg, Warren County, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, private industry and benevolent agencies.

Independence was the goal, said Jerry Hall, regional president of West Mississippi for Trustmark Bank and the first president of V’burg Inc.’s advisory board.

“Simply put, what it was about was education, day care and housing,” Hall said, adding about $18,000 of the program’s $1.3 million in construction and operating funds came from private sources, including Trustmark’s predecessor, First National Bank of Vicksburg.

“There were 200 applicants for the first nine units. And the city and county had always been there.”

That funding is no more, however, as a mix of logistical and financial issues doomed the program, according to its final director and advisory board president.

In the program’s final years, HUD changed rules on instructor-pupil ratios for the purpose of continued funding that lowered the maximum number of children it could enroll to 30 from 40, said Leah Sullivan, who directed the day care for seven years until November 2011. The regulations were based on the center’s physical size, Sullivan said. It meant children were turned away and low-wage tenants — already struggling to pay monthly rent that averaged about $400, depending on income, and cut-rate, $50-a-week day care fees — fell further behind on their end of the bargain, Sullivan said.

“We lost a massive amount of children because of that,” Sullivan said. “Then, we had people who owed $9,000 in back rent.”

V’burg Inc. was dissolved in February 2006, leaving The Initiative Inc., which had been set up in 1993 to receive grants and loans for the program, as the program’s chief overseer.

Still, contributions from local government continued through fiscal 2009-10, at about $4,500 a year, a far cry from the $240,000 donated by Vicksburg and $30,000 from Warren County the first year. In Mississippi, such donations from localities are permissible only with the Legislature’s approval.

In 2011, the first of six years of tax liens and more than $114,000 worth of federal tax liens was placed on The Initiative Inc., records show. Most show a failure to pay payroll taxes for Sullivan and others who worked in the day care. Other lien documents note a failure to file W-2 forms and annual reports that certain federally tax-exempt organizations must file with the Internal Revenue Service.

Sullivan, now employed in an unrelated line of work, said the money woes took a toll on her, as she held to a pledge of not taking any pay for the good of the program.

“Money had gone to pay the workers in the center and for repairs like air condition and appliances,” she said. “But, I didn’t see a paycheck the last four months I was there,” Sullivan said.

Horace Allen, president of The Initiative Inc. at the time of last month’s sale, said the venture — even with subsidized rent and child care costs for its tenants — had lost its mission and wasn’t paying for itself anymore.

“People just weren’t paying rent like they should have,” Allen said. “There wasn’t enough revenue to pay the employees. We had opened up the day care to children of people who weren’t staying there and we were robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Liens were satisfied before the sale. “We’re clean,” Allen said. “It’s all clean.”

Meanwhile, lease terms for current tenants put in place by Blue River include a limit on the play equipment for children 10 and older. Rules say they must be children of tenants, Rader said.

Despite the comparative quiet on the grounds these days, Rader is satisfied with the new owners.

“Since they came in a few months ago, they’ve come around and checked on things,” she said. “I guess we’ll see.”