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The East Lake Model
A storied golf course and a unique public-private partnership bring new life and new hope to a neglected Atlanta neighborhood

Georgia Trend Magazine, 2005

"In 1995 the East Lake Community Foundation (ELCF) was formed to lead the $120 million redevelopment of an entire neighborhood. Together with the Atlanta Housing Authority, the foundation set about trying to earn the trust of the neighborhood."

When Lucia Clark reminisces about the old neighborhood, there isn't a trace of wistful sentimentality in her voice, no yearning for the way things used to be in simpler times. "We found bodies here, dead bodies behind buildings," says Clark, the mother of four. "Children saw people being killed, people dying. Lot of drugs and shootings here. My kids and I, we were going somewhere, and the shooting started. We ran back into the house and hit the floor. Bullets were ricocheting."

That was East Lake Meadows in the early 1990s, an explosive public-housing project decaying loudly next to hallowed ground, East Lake Golf Club, the faded green patch of sports history, Bobby Jones' home course, where golfers were being held up on the fairway. Not in the typical way, by a slow foursome up ahead. Held up at knifepoint.

"This was a bad place, a place you didn't want to be caught dead in," says Clark, who lived there when it was a war zone known as Little Vietnam to harried cops who worked the beat. She lived there during its controversial transformation and lives there now, witness to an urban resurrection stimulated by the game of golf.

A neighborhood of neglected buildings and people was razed. In its place a community is emerging at the Villages at East Lake, a mixed-income complex of apartments and townhouses, a 50-50 blend of subsidized and market-rate housing, surrounding a busy public golf course, and served by a top-flight charter school, YMCA and early learning center. Still next door is the old, but renovated, internationally revered course, East Lake Golf Club, now the permanent home to the PGA's season-finale Tour Championship.

"Great things have happened here for my family and others," says Lucia Clark, who works at the YMCA that adjoins the Drew Charter School. "The community is changing. The PGA Tour is here, and that will make things happen. Sometimes I can't believe how far we've come, how much better off we are now."

For starters, now the odds of being struck by an errant Titleist are much greater than being hit by a stray hollow-point. Safety and bullets were far from Retief Goosen's mind last November, as he tamed the East Lake course, shooting a bogey-free 64 on the final day of the tournament to win $1.08 million in the PGA Tour Championship, the annual battle of pro golf's top 30 money winners. Goosen performed two rare feats in that final round, birdying the 481-yard 16th hole, and overcoming a Tiger Woods lead on the last day of a tournament. Must be something about the place that inspires the remarkable. The last time Woods lost when leading on Sunday was the 2000 Tour Championship at East Lake.


Combine Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, add a touch of Arnold Palmer, and the resultant golf mutant might still lag behind Bobby Jones, who completely dominated the game from 1923 to 1930. As an amateur. In 1930, when Jones won golf's only pure Grand Slam (winning the U.S. and British Amateurs and the U.S. and British Opens), East Lake was the most famous country club in America.

Atlanta developer Tom Cousins, whose family joined East Lake during World War II, was a teenager when he saw Jones hook a shot around an oak tree, 130 yards, the ball settling a few feet from the pin. Jones had retired from competitive golf by then and Cousins, who shot a par 72 in bare feet at age 14, had barely taken up the game.

Decades later, having carved his presence in the Atlanta skyline, Cousins bought East Lake Golf Club for $4.5 million. It was 1993, and Cousins planned to restore a landmark, renovate the old place and honor Jones' memory. But Cousins also was looking for a way to spin off his real estate expertise into philanthropic gold. Somehow, he would make golf a catalyst for social change.

"We set out at the beginning, and it's still our objective, to create a model for urban renewal," says Cousins, who founded Cousins Properties with his father in 1958 and who has an interest in Georgia Trend. "This has always been about much more than golf."

In 1993 he read a piece in The New York Times showing that 70 percent of prison inmates in New York State came from just eight New York City neighborhoods. Cousins discovered that in Atlanta, it was just two or three neighborhoods and the worst was East Lake, where people slept in bathtubs to avoid being killed by wall-piercing bullets, and 90 percent of the residents were victims of a felony; drug trafficking was the number one industry, there were two aggravated assaults a week, the average age of a grandmother was 32, and of the 450 families living in the 650-unit inner-city gauntlet, only 16 households had fathers at home. Meanwhile, at the combustible local elementary school, only five percent of the fifth graders were able to pass the state math test. Cousins found his cause.

"Our objective was to get to the children before they could get hooked on drugs or a life of crime, because that's the kind of future most of them seemed to be facing," Cousins says. "Imagine being raised in that environment, under those circumstances. What options do you have? A future in crime and drugs, or prison, if you don't get shot first? That's no future."

Cousins' family foundation needed partners in the public sector to make the sweeping changes he had in mind. Renee Glover, who became CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) in 1994, says, "There was a real alignment of vision and interest for me and Tom Cousins. A notion that we could bring people together and create affordable housing in a fabulous community, and leave behind the last vestiges of hopelessness represented by East Lake Meadows."

It was the right set of symbiotic relationships -- the golf club with the community, Cousins and the AHA. He poured $25 million into East Lake's old golf course (which included hiring famed architect Rees Jones to restore the course to its old Donald Ross-designed grandeur). Together, Cousins and Glover worked initially to secure a $33.5 million HUD HOPE VI grant to renovate the 650-unit public housing complex. All of the Cousins family foundation efforts were now concentrated on the project. Soon it was apparent that it would be better to tear down the old project and replace it with an improved facility.


In 1995 the East Lake Community Foundation (ELCF) was formed to lead the $120 million redevelopment of an entire neighborhood. Together with the AHA, the foundation set about trying to earn the trust of the neighborhood.

Lucia Clark was skeptical at first. Actually, she was opposed to the idea. She didn't trust the AHA (at the time, who did?) and she didn't know this guy Cousins. She heard about the plan to renovate the neighborhood one phase at a time. It would mean leaving her home, wretched as it was, and she wondered if the project was one of urban renewal or removal. "When they came to speak with us, we'd close our doors," Clark says. "They wanted to tell us about the renovation plans. I'd never seen so many white people in our neighborhood! First thing I thought, 'They're fixing to do away with us.' A lot of people were scared."
For good reason, says AHA's Glover. "The housing authority had a horrible track record. There was so much suspicion. The biggest challenge was getting the buy-in from all the stakeholders. So most of our effort, particularly with residents, was about building trust."

All of the planning, with residents' input, about flooring and cabinets and location, was secretly about building trust and new relationships, says Carol Naughton, executive director of the East Lake Community Foundation. "It got pretty ugly at times, but were it not for some of the residents, like Lucia Clark, this whole thing might not have happened the way it happened."

Residents filed a lawsuit that took three months to be resolved, and Glover and Naughton were ready to resign in order to move the process along. In the end, a judge ruled for the housing authority. Today, where neglected houses once rotted with people living inside, a 542-unit complex of attractive apartments and townhouses, almost 100 percent occupied, rings the public Charlie Yates Golf Course.

East Lake Meadows used to be the worst crime beat in Atlanta, 56th out of 56. The same beat has moved up to 11th, far from the bottom. Crime is down 93 percent in the new neighborhood compared with East Lake Meadows.

Drawing upon the public-private mojo that built housing, the foundation created the neighborhood's $31.5 million 'Educational Village.' The Charles R. Drew Charter School (the first charter school in the Atlanta Public School System) for 770 students in grades K-8 replaced a substandard version of itself. Since it opened in 2000, reading and math test scores have jumped by 40 percent, one of the highest improvement rates in Georgia. The school is tied in with the East Lake Family YMCA, Sheltering Arms Early Learning Center and the Yates public golf course, which is home to The First Tee of East Lake (formerly the East Lake Golf Academy, which actually inspired the idea of the now-national First Tee program). The youth program has already taught golf to hundreds of kids in East Lake.

Property values have increased more than anyplace else in the Atlanta metro area, leaping 43 percent between 2000 and 2001, the year after the Villages at East Lake was completed. According to Naughton, the average home price in the East Lake neighborhood was $45,000 in 1996. Today it's $280,000.

Where unemployment and poverty festered, opportunity and hope show signs of a full recovery thanks to a cooperative give-and-take negotiating process. Cousins insisted on the mixed-income model. Market-rate tenants have bought in, and that was necessary. They could have rented a $1,000 apartment anywhere else in the city, but many choose East Lake because, after two years, the foundation will return a percentage of the rent to be used in buying a home.

There are rules in the new housing development that didn't exist in the old neighborhood. Adults aged 17 to 54 must have a job, or be enrolled in a life-skills program offered by the foundation. Also, residents seeking to return to East Lake were screened and the worst criminal offenders were kept out.

Lucia Clark was one of the fortunate mothers who didn't have to make that choice. Two of her sons work at East Lake Golf Club. All of her kids play some golf. She's hacked a little herself, but enjoys watching duffers on the Yates course from the comfort of her two-story home with four bedrooms, air conditioning and central heat. Her oldest son Tony is looking into colleges now. "I don't think that would have been possible if things hadn't changed around here," she says. "We would not have had the positive outlook, for one thing. He probably would have strayed away, like so many others I've seen on the news, children going to jail or the grave. My son didn't wind up in a courtroom or a graveyard, and I'm very grateful."

One of the stipulations Cousins insisted on early during the golf course renovation was that future profits from the club go directly to the ELCF. So far the figure is $18 million and climbing.

"It would be nice if we could quit building prisons," Cousins says. "I know, its sort of idealistic dreamy stuff, but maybe not so dreamy. There's your proof at East Lake. I see hope in the eyes of children. Their future doesn't have to be violent death and jail."


Ray Robinson had just retired in 2003 as president of AT&T's Southern Region when Cousins made a proposition. "He told me, 'Ray, I have something right up your alley,'" says Robinson, president of East Lake Golf Club and chairman of the East Lake Community Foundation board. "He wanted me to help get the Tour Championship here on a permanent basis. He wants the Tour Championship to become golf's fifth major tournament."

More than recruiting a golf event, Cousins says, Robinson's main responsibility is to schmooze mayors, CEOs and others with influence, get them to Atlanta to see what's happened at the Villages. The idea caught on in Memphis, it's catching on in Spartanburg. "Other cities can learn from what we've done," Cousins says. "You don't need an old golf club. The Tour Championship just gives us a larger platform, to spread the word. Memphis is doing it around a music academy."

The tournament had been to East Lake in 1998, 2000 and 2002, trading every other year with Houston's Champions Golf Club. By the 2002 event Coca-Cola signed on for star sponsor billing and East Lake was that much closer to being the full-time home of the Tour Championship. "We reached the agreement with Coke that the tournament would be back here for 2004 and 2005 following the 2003 event in Houston," says Todd Rhinehart, executive director of the Tour Championship, whose office is across the street from East Lake Golf Club. "But Mr. Cousins had the vision and goal of keeping this event at East Lake. And with Coke as our presenting sponsor and Southern Company still a huge sponsor, both based in Atlanta, the stars sort of aligned and this is where we'll stay."

Last June the PGA finally announced that East Lake would be the tournament's permanent home, but in December, the organization was still ironing out details with both Coke and Southern Company to extend their association beyond 2005. Three previous Tour Championships netted an average of about $500,000 for the ELCF. Although a figure wasn't available at press time, the 2004 event was expected to exceed $700,000 in contributions for the community foundation.

The tournament (which drew 92,000 spectators last November) will have an economic impact beyond the ELCF. The overall impact is estimated at $25 million, which means a lot of hotel rooms, a lot of meals out and for Isaac Clark, a lot of parked cars.

Clark (no relation to Lucia) owns the Grissom-Eastlake Funeral Home, about a block away from East Lake's gated club entrance. He's been using his lot as a parking area since the 1998 event, cramming 200 cars in at $20 to $30 per.

Things got a little dicey in November, when two "clients" were dropped off at the funeral home during the tournament. Retief Goosen was playing a round for the ages down the street while 20,000 fans cheered, but Isaac Clark made the play of the day, leaving just enough room between two parked cars for the hearses to deliver their grim cargo.

"I can't stop business from happening," says Clark, who knows that in the death business, as with old courses and ruined neighborhoods, life must go on.