BELOIT - Issues facing Merrill neighborhood were on full display Wednesday when a listening session was held that is part of the federally-funded revitalization effort that started in 2017.
Around 50 Merrill residents and city staff came together at the Merrill Community Center to voice concerns including a need for increased infrastructure projects in the area and boosted public safety initiatives, paired with a continued need to rehabilitate blighted houses.
In September of 2017, the city approved creating the Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Areas (NRSA) plan to focus on Merrill and Hackett neighborhoods to fight rising blight, poverty and unemployment. The effort allows changes to the city's consolidated plan to provide easier access to grant funding for both neighborhoods. The effort allocates federal funds to improve public safety, revitalize the neighborhoods through more programming and affordable housing options, and support resident empowerment.
Groups involved include Community Action, Family Services and NeighborWorks. Community Action focuses on providing resource information for residents seeking help or access to programming; Family Services serves as a community liaison for both areas; NeighborWorks provides down payment assistance on securing properties in both areas.
After the first year of funding in 2018, the NRSA program has helped 34 families access resources, resulting in $51,500 in direct support to families for rental assistance, emergency housing for homeless families and providing winter clothing and other needed items. Through funding provided by NRSA, Community Action and Family Services helped 447 residents access resources in 2018, from emergency housing to basic needs like clothing, along with free programming geared towards financial literacy for residents.
The plan has helped connect 10 families with new lodging. The plan helped enroll 50 students in after-school programming; and will offer a trip for Boys and Girls Club participants to send 40 youth to Washington, D.C., along with a tour of historically black colleges. Multiple homes were renovated in the Hackett neighborhood in 2018, and 2019 will focus on Merrill for two residential rehabilitations and new construction of a home. The city increased its lending percentage to boost home ownership, and the city can lend up to 120 percent of property values. In 2018, 11 units have been renovated including four owner-occupied renovations, six rentals and one new home construction. A vacant property task force was created in 2018 and multiple city departments have partnered to tackle blight in the city. So far, three demolitions have been completed, with three scheduled. In total, there are 88 vacant properties in Merrill and 51 vacant properties in Hackett, according to city data.
In terms of public safety, residents said streets needed more lighting to prevent loitering and criminal activity, and the city will partner with Alliant Energy to add more street lighting in the two neighborhoods, according to City Manager Lori Curtis Luther. Over the last six months, the city also trimmed all tree cover in both neighborhoods after complaints of poor lighting surfaced at NRSA meetings held last year.
Residents also said they believe people were selling drugs in parts of the Merrill neighborhood. Beloit Police Chief David Zibolski said the department had set up an online registry for tips on the city website, noting that tips can be made anonymously.
"The more information you can put in there, it's helpful to us," Zibolski said.
Merrill resident and community activist Markese Terrell said the police department needed to continue to focus on youth engagement to boost public trust in law enforcement.
"They are afraid of getting caught up in the system," Terrell said. "Any kid at risk or getting in trouble, getting them involved in something that shows the department cares about them to stay out of trouble and out of the system. That is what we need."
The department restarted its police explorer youth program, and Lt. Andre Sayles said the revived program has 15 young people involved with the department.
An additional NRSA listening session will be held in the Hackett neighborhood from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on March 27 at Beloit Historical Society, 845 Hackett St.