Community activist starts award series for neighbors fighting blight

07/04/2014 2:15 PM

07/04/2014 2:15 PM

There is a new city of Wichita sign outside Madison Avenue Apartments.

The sign and the certificate that came with it honor manager Tommy Benford, the first recipient of Janet Wilson’s Neighborhood Pride award. Wilson, a community activist in the A. Price Woodard neighborhood, kicked off the award series June 26 to draw attention to positive changes in an area of Wichita combating blight.

Recipients of the award adopt a “worst to first” mindset, Wilson said. She tried to put the sign where someone driving past the intersection of Madison and Ninth Street can see it.

“We want to highlight and spotlight people who take pride in their neighborhood, pride in their houses, pride in their gardens – those who put some positives in the northeast area,” she said. “If you look back on our history, a lot of people talked about blight, blight, blight. The award is to tell people there are good things happening in our neighborhood.

It’s coming back, and we’re proud of it.”

Benford has managed Madison Avenue Apartments since it opened in 2009, a year after he got involved with Mennonite Housing, which owns the apartments. Mennonite offers rental housing for low-income families, providing financial assistance for the purchase and construction of new houses and repairs old, dilapidated homes. The organization got its start in 1975 when volunteers from local Mennonite churches joined together to repair homes for those unable to do so on their own.

Benford said pride is just what his residents feel when they see the sign.

“It represents that they have been a positive influence in the community,” he said. “Their attitude reflects the good things happening in the neighborhood. They feel a great deal of pride for that.”

Benford has worked with nonprofit organizations for years, spending 18 years at the Wichita Family Services Institute, which promoted healthy environments for children and their families. He met many of the families who live at Madison through past work, making his “long laundry list” of managing tasks easier.

“What you do is manage people, because the property will manage itself,” he said. “When you already have that connection, they know who you are, what you stand for and your ability to enforce those standards. You have to be able to interact with people on all levels, and stay in tune with what’s going on in the streets.

“The primary responsibility as far as I’m concerned is to have a safe and healthy environment that meets the needs of families.”

The area around Madison Avenue Apartments experienced a large drop in crime since the apartment complex opened, Benford said, a change he attributes to reversing the effect of blight.

“When you remove blight you remove the primary element of crime,” he said. “Crime thrives where there is blight to operate and hide in. When you eliminate that and replace it with bright lights and positive interactions, you really feel a domino effect.”

It’s a domino effect Benford hopes the award series will continue to foster.

“Hopefully this will spur and promote a greater sense of pride in our community and be a beacon for even greater positive change.”

Wilson plans to give out the next award in July.

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