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Frank Gray

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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
A yard sign represents the entry to the the Baker-Fairfield Improvement District.

One man’s crusade

Mixed results in enhancing Baker-Fairfield

For 40 years now a guy named Jerry Vandeveer has run a place called the Wood Shack at Fairfield Avenue and Baker Street, selling everything from old fireplace mantels and doors to spiral staircases salvaged from old homes.

And for about 20 of those years he’s run a one-man campaign to get businesses and residents in the area to fix up their properties.

On Thursday, Vandeveer declared he had established the Baker-Fairfield Improvement District, set up a Facebook page and started encouraging property owners to fix up their properties along the corridor leading downtown.

Being a member of the improvement district is particularly easy. There are no meetings and no dues. Just decide you’re a member. You can even submit a photo of your recently spiffed up property to the district’s Facebook page, and maybe they’ll post it.

It’s just the latest chapter in Vandeveer’s efforts to make a difference, a series of efforts that have met varying degrees of success over the years.

Vandeveer can tell you of efforts in the late 1990s to get police to pay attention to the area, which had pockets of prostitution and drug dealing. Police largely ignored his pleas – until, that is, a couple of officers drove down one street one day and realized he wasn’t a crackpot. In the next year, police made 106 felony arrests in the area, and caught some really bad guys.

He once bought a bunch of paint and started repainting the railroad overpass on Fairfield, only to be stopped by city workers who threatened to arrest him.

Later he talked Lowe’s into giving property owners a discount on anything they needed to improve their properties and went door to door telling residents and business owners the news. Only one company expressed interest, though.

But Vandeveer never gave up, and by establishing the Baker-Fairfield Improvement District he shows he’s still pushing to make a difference.

“If we play on pride, it will work,” Vandeveer said of his latest idea. “When people see a business get recognition, people will say, ‘Why not me?’ ” and they’ll do the same.

“Keep mentioning it and people will eventually take part,” Vandeveer said.

“Throw something on the wall and sooner or later something will stick,” he said. “Now is the time. We’re the arteries that pump traffic into downtown. We have a responsibility to be stewards of our property.”

The improvement district isn’t just for businesses, Vandeveer says. There are 10 times as many individuals as businesses along Fairfield.

“For every positive thing someone does, someone else will do something too,” he said. “You can’t tell people what to do. You’ve got to lead by example.

“The best way to support this is not to ask permission. You just do it yourself. If you do something wrong, you don’t have anyone to answer to. If you do something good, you have no one to answer to.

“And if it doesn’t work, what have you lost?”

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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