The McCallie School has found an uncommon way to eliminate the crime and blight surrounding it on several sides: Buy the neighborhood.
The Chattanooga boarding school has quietly purchased the vast majority of the homes bounded by Anderson Avenue, Main Street and Dodds Avenue, a neighborhood that was once a crime-infested nook in the 600-home Ridgedale community that straddles Dodds Avenue.
"When I first worked over there, it was the worst area," said Sgt. Wayne Jefferson, who patrolled the Highland Park district more than a decade ago.
The school has bought about 220 properties since beginning the program in 1979, including roughly 60 homes since 2004, when current executive director of operations Bill Kropff took over his position.
"If a piece of property comes open to us, we buy it," Kropff said.
Between Anderson Avenue -- the traditional southern boundary of McCallie -- and Bennett Avenue, there are only two properties not owned by McCallie in an area that was once a block packed with dozens of homeowners. On the next block, between Bennett and East 12th Street, only one home is not owned by McCallie. And so on.
Entire blocks have been consolidated, bulldozed and turned into practice fields. Many of the homes that remain are inhabited by McCallie staff members, though about 30 independently owned properties are still left, including several businesses along Dodds Avenue.
Neighbors and school officials say the school's strategy has worked. Crime today is almost nonexistent on McCallie's south side, neighbors say, though the school still faces a challenge along its western Dodds Avenue border.
"This area was pretty well overrun with criminality when we started," said Gary Ball, vice president of the Ridgedale neighborhood association. "Now, we know there are still criminals in there, but it is more underground and not out in the open like it was then."
And despite a strategy that has diminished the area's population, the buyouts haven't generated much ill will from the neighborhood. That's due partially to how much safer the neighborhood is today, said homeowner Vince Rizzo. McCallie's security guards patrol the area 24 hours a day, he said, unlike the other side of Dodds, which he calls "crimeville."
"Honestly, I think it's safer here than in North Chattanooga," Rizzo said. "How many other places have 24-hour security? We're like a gated community without the gate."
Neighbors also like McCallie's soft-sell approach, Kropff said. He doesn't knock on doors asking to buy property, and he doesn't seek to change the minds of those uninterested in selling. What he does is keep his office door open and his cellphone on.
"I'm not asking to buy; we don't seek any property," Kropff said. "Everything we buy is because somebody has called the school, and said, 'I'm interested in selling this.' There are times that happens 10 times in a year, 20 times in a year, and there are times we only buy one piece in a year."
McCallie has a simple formula. The school pays the appraised value of the property plus reasonable closing costs, no questions asked. Nothing more, nothing less. Some homeowners are holding out for more. That's fine, Kropff said. They'll be waiting for a long time, because McCallie, which was founded in 1905, is not in a hurry.
"We've got some homeowners close to campus that we'll probably never buy who are happy, and we're great with that because we don't have buildings proposed for that area," he said.
The school has plenty of room in its existing footprint for buildings, he said, and doesn't have an immediate need for the surrounding property. It's more of a long-term insurance policy for the landlocked school, which uses most of the extra space for practice fields.
McCallie's home-buying program began in the early 1980s, after the neighborhood had transformed from a well-established community into a neglected area rife with decaying rental properties, good-time houses and abandoned homes. As existing homeowners grew old and moved on, their descendants often failed to maintain the land and property values in parts of Ridgedale took a dive.
Lower area property values motivated other homeowners to rent out their homes instead of selling them, working to eke out any value they could get while investing little in keeping up the homes, officials say.
It was a death spiral for the neighborhood.
By the early '80s, the area adjacent to McCallie had descended into decay and depravity, neighbors said. Yet despite the dire situation, the neighborhood was still cool to McCallie's early advances, Ball said.
"When it started, I'll be honest, there were some pretty tenuous conversations," Ball said. "When they wanted the recreational facility up there that was closed, it took a lot of tenuous meetings and even one in the mayor's office."
In most communities, buyouts take one of two forms. They're either mandatory and don't pay much, or they're spearheaded by private developers in a hurry to redevelop an area, and involve large sums of money and stubborn holdouts. Both methods typically generate ill will.
But McCallie hasn't fallen into either trap, Ball said, because the school is playing the long game.
Plus, neighbors realized that Ridgedale needed the help. The community -- which was overwhelmingly populated by rental housing -- missed out on revitalization grants and funds that have gone to areas like Highland Park, St. Elmo and Main Street, Ball said.
Even today, the Ridgedale neighborhood west of Dodds still includes a large number of rental units, Ball said. The transient and trouble-making nature of some renters makes it difficult to build a strong, self-policing community, which is why neighbors eventually came around to the idea of buying and bulldozing trouble spots.
"The only way you can keep your head above water is to keep treading water, and make friends with people," Ball said.
The neighborhood's crime problem is far from solved. Ball can name "bad" properties off the top of his head on the west side of Dodds Avenue that he said are nests of crime, but whose owners are indifferent to their neighbors' suffering. Unlike the east side of Dodds, much of Ridgedale is still struggling to contain criminality.
"The business next to me was just rifled last week, and lost thousands of dollars worth of tools," Ball said. "It's a challenge every single day, for law enforcement and for the citizens. But if you check the data, you would find that there are probably almost no calls for city fire and police services on the east side of Dodds Avenue."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith, firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6315.