What if Legacy Park could cultivate good works, just as it does fruits and vegetables?
Early in 2017 the United Methodist Children’s Home board made the difficult decision to sell the organization’s 77 acre Decatur property.
With rising costs and changing attitudes, group homes for at-risk youth were losing traction to the growing practice of private home foster care. By selling, the property’s $40 million price tag could fund an endowment of such substance that it would serve the needs of Atlanta area children for decades to come.
Fueling the property’s value was its potential for redevelopment, demonstrated in graphic detail by an early subdivision plan of 600 homes that put the surrounding community on edge.
In response, the City of Decatur moved in with a competitive offer, sweetened by its intention to preserve the property and its campus. By August, the deal was done.
Some of what’s happened with the property in the years since— like forest restoration, farming, and recreation — has been intuitive but one physical reality was a little more complicated: the park’s many historic buildings, most of which required copious amounts of money or love. And sometimes both. What could be done with those?
Leasing out the space made sense financially but seemed counter to the park’s founding, which was prompted by the potential loss of natural and cultural assets to the financial motivations of commercial interests.
Could the space instead be monetized in community-serving ways? What if the park could cultivate good works, just as it does fruits and vegetables?
The Legacy Park nonprofit incubator initiative was born.
Trees Atlanta volunteers get to work removing invasive plants from the Legacy Park forest. PHOTO: Trees Atlanta.
Today, Legacy Park is home to eleven distinct nonprofits serving different aspects of the Decatur community — environmental stewardship, social services, community development, and the arts.
Each of these organizations has invested in their space through upgrades and enhancements, helping breathe new life into tired old buildings. They pay rent commensurate with the realities of nonprofit operations and benefit from both the assets of the park and each other.
“Legacy Park is an ideal work environment for Trees Atlanta,” says Hayden Wyatt, “because it's a public, community-oriented space with many visitors. People can see the impact of invasive species, volunteer to help conserve the space, and enjoy the benefits of a healthy forest. There is always at least one person from the neighborhood present at our Saturday volunteer projects. Often much more than one.”
Fellow tree travelers the Georgia Arborist Association agrees, lauding Legacy Park’s “prime location to reach the public.”
Others revel in the sense of community. “We love Legacy Park for the collegial and collaborative environment, beautiful campus, and affordable rent,” says L’Arche Atlanta executive director, Tim Moore. “Every dollar saved is a dollar we can spend on our mission to build inclusive, transformative community for people of all abilities.”
Maura Nicholson of the Frank Hamilton School holds similar sentiments. “Moving into Legacy Park gave us a sense of identity,” she says, “allowing us to create our community.”
The jamming rarely stops at the Frank Hamilton School. PHOTO: Frank Hamilton School
It’s easy to look at the incubator model as a give-away of community resources that could be more profitable as a commercial enterprise but the discounted revenues received constitute just one small part of the greater community value that results from the park’s nonprofit tenants.
Wild Nest Bird Rehab, for instance, occupies a cottage at the park where they provide rescue and rehabilitation services for native wild birds. No small feat from a bird’s perspective but equally helpful to local residents who’ve brought in hundreds of birds needing care. In tandem, the organization fields an even greater number of phone calls from head-scratching neighbors seeking advice and guidance with wildlife interactions.
Meanwhile, the Frank Hamilton School has had buskers on the Square, "pop-ups" at the Woodlands Garden, and group performances for events like Truckin’ Tuesdays and the Beer Fest, while Paint Love offers a free, family-friendly arts activity every month.
Trees Atlanta has cleared countless acres of invasive plants and offers Decatur residents a free tree they’ll even plant for you. The Decatur Education Foundation partners with City Schools of Decatur, the Decatur Housing Authority, and other community organizations and businesses in the service of Decatur students. And the Refugee Women’s Network — who provide for refugee and immigrant families who’ve resettled in Georgia — provide food for Truckin' Tuesdays, introducing the community to cuisine and culture from Afghanistan, Syria, and around the Mediterranean.
“We love the privilege of hosting our community events here,” says L'Arche Atlanta's Moore. “It's in those spaces that we see the vision of inclusion realized: people, regardless of ability, connecting as humans over shared interests and commitments. It's beautiful.”
“We love our neighbors,” adds Compassionate Atlanta’s Leanne Rubenstein. “And the whole community.”
Talents shine at a L'Arche Atlanta community event. PHOTO: L'Arche Atlanta
While the presence of nonprofit organizations at Legacy Park serves a practical need — helping pay for the ongoing operations and maintenance of the park — they provide much more than that. They’re a reflection. Of us, as a community.
We all benefit, even those who don’t consider themselves in need. The forest is healthier, educational resources are available for community kids, immigrants and other marginalized people are welcomed, and music fills the air.
“So much good happens here every day,” says Legacy Decatur executive director, Madeleine Henner. “For people. For the planet. It’s inspiring just being around that kind of energy.”
Decatur Education Foundation’s Erin Murphy puts a finer point on it:
“We feel like we’re helping to keep youthful energy and compassion alive on this campus.”
COVER PHOTO CREDIT: Decatur Education Foundation
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