Fernandez was surprised at the scale of the problems on the Westside and the apprehension of the residents who remember the unmet promises of the past.
“This is a very racialized atmosphere — the rich, white billionaire going to save the black folks,” he said while driving past boarded-up homes and shuttered churches and shops. “You can only go the speed of trust and just weather the storm. There will be a certain percentage of the neighborhood that will be skeptical of Arthur.”
Given the depths of the problems, Blank and Fernandez acknowledge that it will take decades to revitalize the Westside. But they point to some early successes.
Lloyd Foster, a former tattoo shop owner with a criminal background, learned how to use hand tools, read blueprints and follow safety standards at Westside Works. He now operates a freight elevator at the stadium and hopes to continue working there once the construction is complete.
“When I first heard about the stadium, I didn’t think it was going to help the community because of all the other programs that didn’t do anything,” said Foster, 51, who said he earns about $60,000 with overtime. “But I could see where it was going. You could see the money invested and the growth.”
Rolanda Gardner, another Westside resident, graduated from a culinary arts class in May and has landed a job as a baker at the convention center. She lost 30 pounds during the eight-week program, she said, because of the hectic schedule and a better understanding of nutrition. She also started her own catering business, which provides gluten-free meals to a preschool program.
“This program has given the Westside such an incentive,” Gardner said, tears streaming down her face. “Now we can do more for our families.”
Blank has also used the stadium itself to help; among other ways, by building a 680,000-gallon cistern to capture rainwater that might otherwise flood the local streets. Some of the team’s construction partners have also contributed money or expertise: SunTrust has introduced low-cost check cashing in the area; IBM has donated software to neighborhood nonprofits; and employees from other sponsors are mentoring Westside residents to improve their job skills.
“We provide a vehicle to make a difference,” said Tim Zulawski, the chief commercial officer of Blank’s sports and entertainment businesses, which also include a soccer team, Atlanta United. “A lot of teams are using their personal clout, but I haven’t seen this on this scale.”