FULTON, New York — Can a fresh coat of paint and a new flower bed revitalize a struggling city?
Sounds too good to be true, but a small town in New York has proven it’s possible.
For four years, Fulton Block Builders has awarded grants to groups of neighbors who commit to sprucing up the exteriors of their homes. Residents have used grant money for new doors and windows, sidewalk repair, siding, paint and even landscaping.
For program founder and director Linda Eagan, the program’s success is about more than aesthetics. It was about bringing a sense of pride back to her community.
Fulton, New York has a population just shy of 12,000. A former hub of industry, the city about 30 miles north of Syracuse fell into the all-too-familiar narrative of a rust belt town.
In the 1930s, the New York Sun newspaper described Fulton as “the City the Great Depression Missed,” but in the 1990s, large manufacturers started leaving town. The final blow came in 2003, when the Nestle Chocolate Company closed its plant after 100 years in Fulton.
The exit of large employers had a domino effect -- small businesses shuttered, property values dropped and unemployment reached record levels. The housing market suffered, and with it, the city’s tax base. The homes in Fulton continued to age, with little funding or motivation to improve them.
"The most important observation made by Fulton Block Builders is that the people in the community, despite somewhat lower incomes, do have resources to invest in their homes and neighborhoods but have chosen not to," said Eagan, a 35-year resident Fulton resident.
"The neighborhood conditions both cause, and are caused by, a continuous cycle of resident disinvestment based on a lack of confidence in the market."
After watching her city decline for more than a decade, Eagan had seen enough. She began researching programs that could spur investment by community members and founded Fulton Block Builders in 2017. The program provides matching grants up to $1,000 per homeowner to groups of neighbors who commit to completing exterior improvements to their homes.
Neighborhoods must unite in a joint effort to qualify for the program, with at least 50 percent participation per block. Participants are also required to meet regularly and hold an end-of-the-summer gathering to celebrate completion of the projects.
Each homeowner is responsible for their own project, but often neighbors help each other out with the hands-on labor.
Jim Farfaglia has spent most of his life in the tiny town of Fulton, but he didn’t know most of his neighbors until he joined a Fulton Block Builders group a few years ago.
“It was really a great opportunity for me to get to know some people who were just down the block that maybe I've waved to and said ‘Hi’ to but never really gotten to know,” he said.
Eagan said that's an example of rebuilding a sense of community.
“We found out that neighbors weren’t talking to neighbors and didn’t know each other," Eagan said. "That makes it a little easier not to take care of your property or not to pick up your garbage cans when they’re rolling around the street.”
During the application process, a volunteer from Fulton Block Builders leads each group of neighbors on a “Fresh Eyes Block Walk.” During this walk, they are asked to imagine they are an outsider coming into the area for the first time.
“It helps residents understand how conditions that have become the norm may not be acceptable to the greater market or may take away from the overall character of a block or neighborhood,” Eagan explained.
When awards are announced, each participating property owner receives a sign with the Fulton Block Builder logo to place in their yard.
“People are watching those homes with the signs all summer long,” Eagan said.
Farfaglia has participated in the program twice (the maximum allowed per homeowner). The first year, he finally paved his gravel driveway. The second year, he added new landscaping and upgraded his front porch. Even though he’s no longer eligible to participate in Fulton Block Builders, his home improvement projects haven’t slowed. Last year, he put new siding on his home and built a new back porch.
“You start doing these smaller projects and then you take a look and you think, ‘Wow I could do this, I could do this,’” he said. “You get inspired and things start looking better and you want to just keep doing more.”
The born-and-raised Fulton resident says the program is having a tangible effect on the city.
“For decades, it’s just been really negative here and all of a sudden, people have something good to talk about,” he said. “It may seem hard to believe but in four years, that’s really starting to turn around.
“It’s not about the latest factory that moved out of here or the latest restaurant to close down. Now it’s, ‘Did you see what so-and-so did in that neighborhood? Have you driven by there?’ That positive energy starts generating.”
Fulton Mayor Deana Michaels agreed.
"Anytime a community’s passion and love for their city results in a better place to live, the entire community wins. Fulton Block Builders is definitely a win," Michaels said. "With a team of neighbors helping neighbors to make small impactful improvements to their property, the community simply shines with pride. We are very fortunate to have Block Builders in Fulton."
Any neighborhood in Fulton can apply for a grant, but priority is given to "tipping" neighborhoods -- streets where this is a mix of strength and weakness in the housing stock and homeowners are lamenting the erosion of the neighborhood.
"These are the first places to intervene because they are both 'the next to go' and the price of restoring them will pale in comparison to the costs after they have tipped," Eagan explained. "Growing from 'the middle out' also generates visible results faster and builds market confidence sooner. These neighborhoods are also in the best position to begin competing for new homeowners – an absolute necessity in order for revitalization to be sustained."
Since its start in 2017, Fulton Block Builders has awarded nearly 800 Block Challenge grants totaling more than $500,000. It’s also generated an additional $2 million in investment from participating residents.
While the program requires a dollar-for-dollar match from residents, the average resident investment is now more than triple Fulton Block Builders’s investment at $3.70 for every dollar awarded.
While there aren’t formal studies available, estimates on real estate websites like Zillow and RedFin indicate that property values in Fulton are up. But Eagan believes the full impact can’t be measured in dollars and cents. It’s evident in the community’s renewed sense of pride and civic engagement.
Last year, Fulton had four candidates run for Mayor.
“In the years I’ve lived here, usually it’s not even contested, maybe two people,” she said.
Fulton’s voter turnout was the highest in its county, with 43 percent of voters casting a ballot in the mayoral election -- a significant jump from just 29 percent in 2015. In addition, three of the six seats on city council were challenged after years of uncontested races.
Last year also saw the Fulton receive a $10 million state grant to revitalize its downtown. Farfaglia believes the Fulton Block Builders program demonstrated that citizens would be willing to put that money to good use.
“I feel strongly that it was the Block Builders success that really helped us get that grant,” he said. “We had applied to that grant three or four years before that and never got it.”
Meanwhile, Fulton Block Builders has garnered enough community support to start up a second grant program. Last year, the program awarded its first round of Neighborhood Pride grants, which allow groups of neighbors to work together on a community project. Past projects included street lamps, neighborhood welcome signs and park adoptions.
Two blocks even combined efforts to “adopt” a senior citizen who could no longer do manual home renovation work. Together and with her permission, they cleaned the exterior of her home, gave it a fresh coat of paint and installed new windows.
Finally, people once again seem proud to live in Fulton. Four years ago, even Eagan wondered if people would fix up their homes so they could sell them and leave, but that hasn’t been the case.
“They’re fixing it up because they love it and value it and this is a great community,” she said.
Jean Taddie, who represents the sixth ward on Mansfield City Council, said she'd be in favor of a similar program in Mansfield.
"I think it's an excellent idea. For one thing, it gets your neighbors talking to each other about positive things and gives a little energy and excitement," she said.
Taddie also suggested opening up the program to grant funding, individual donations and in-kind donations, which could cover the matching costs for families who want to be involved but don't have income to spare on the project.
"I know there are people around Mansfield that do have the ability to be generous and they would be willing to contribute to something great like this. If they could drive around Mansfield and see their money at work, it would make a lot of people happy," she said.
Second ward Councilwoman Cheryl Meier, who is also a licensed real estate agent, expressed interest in the program, too. She agreed that in certain neighborhoods, some improvements can make a big difference.
"We always talk as realtors about curb appeal and how much curb appeal makes a difference," Meier said. "Obviously there are places that need more than just some lipstick, but I think we could make a huge difference in a lot of these neighborhoods with not a lot of investment."
In Fulton, 31 landlords have improved 34 properties through the block builders program. Meier hopes that if Mansfield were to start a block builders program, landlords here would follow suit.
"I think part of our issues in the neighborhoods where we're seeing the most problems, is that there are tenant-occupied places and so a lot of them are landlord-owned," Meier said. "Some of the landlords aren't even local and therefore aren't seeing the impact that a lopsided gutter and shutters that are falling down make on the community as a whole."
Making a program like Fulton Block Builders work takes more than one dedicated individual. Community buy-in is crucial.
“We’ve talked to about 15 different communities that have approached us because they want to start something like Fulton Block Builders in their communities,” Eagan said. “I think the very key feature is the dedication that all those people that are working on the program have for our community.”
Eagan started Fulton Block Builders at age 62 and eventually retired to run the program full time. Today, she heads up a committee of volunteers who focus on fundraising, events, data entry and guiding block residents through the program.
Local businesses and a community foundation donate a majority of the grant funding. Retailers in the home and garden now partner with the program by offering discounts to block residents.
While it takes a lot of work behind the scenes to make Fulton Block Builders work, Farfaglia the program is successful because it doesn’t ask too much of the participants themselves -- just a little friendliness and hard work.
“I think it's the simplicity of it,” he said. “We’re asking you to say ‘Hi’ to your neighbor, brainstorm a little bit, put in some elbow grease and do some work to make your home nicer.”