In early May, at the dawn of the war of the laundromat suds, Rossville resident David Roden rallied the troops.
"If we could stop it," he declared, urging his supporters in an email, "this would be a small win in taking back our communities. It's OUR community. We should have a say in its future."
Roden, owner of the Mountain View Estates manufactured home community, says he is a reluctant leader. Earlier this year he became the face of the Wilson Road Neighborhood Group, a collective aiming to clean up Rossville, attract businesses to the Walker County, Ga., city and increase property values.
It's a community effort, with about 100 people involved; Roden just started it.
For months, the group had shared dreams of a more prosperous community, one with more pride, more homeowners and fewer renters. But in early May, Roden watched from his office at Mountain View Estates as builders erected the walls of a laundromat across West James Street.
He believes in symbols, and he thinks the business is a symbol of more of the same: A poor community that can't climb. He lumps it in with the abandoned homes, the burned-out buildings, the cracked windows at the front of shuttered businesses. All of these problems restrict property values from rising, discouraging home ownership, Roden said.
"It's like a cancer," he said. "It just grows. And then these people lost faith, faith in the county. And then they try to sell their homes. They can't get a good price for it because they're driving by all this other stuff. And then if you can't sell it, what do you do? You rent it. And if you're renting it and you're out of state or out of town, you really don't care what it's looking like."
There have been so many positive strides in the last couple of months, Roden said. Walker County employees tore down dilapidated buildings, trained a neighborhood watch group and signed a lease to open a new sheriff's satellite office in Rossville.
With the support of some members of the Wilson Road Neighborhood Group, Roden has fought the opening of the laundromat. He objected to members of the planning commission and at a county commission meeting. His voice has halted the laundromat's opening, as County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell considers Roden's arguments.
Heiskell was supposed to discuss the issue Thursday during one of her semi-regular public commissioner's meetings, but she postponed the discussion.
Meanwhile, though, some supporters wonder if their neighborhood group picked a petty fight. And Dennis King, the laundromat's developer, said Roden is actually holding the community back with unrealistic visions. King said he spent $500,00 to $600,000 building the business that will help Roden's neighbors.
"Renters don't move into an area for a laundromat," King said. "They rent there because it's a low-income area. [Roden] runs a trailer park. Are you kidding me?"
A movement begins
Roden prides himself on the appearance of Mountain View Estates, located at 1325 Wilson Road. He drives past mobile home parks in the area and scoffs, wondering aloud how landlords let grass grow wild and dirt cover buildings.
"You can be poor," he said, "but you can be clean."
Roden opened his community in 1988. He and his wife had worked for a man in California who owned a lot of manufactured home communities. The man would pay them to drive around the Southeast in their Toyota Cresta, filming parks that he considered purchasing. Eventually, Roden and his wife decided to run their own community.
He bought about 46 acres from the Hutcheson family, the former owners of the Peerless Woolen Mills complex. Roden said he is proud of Mountain View Estates, proud of the well-trimmed yards and the clean trailers. He likes that people can own a nice home starting at about $30,000.
But at some point, he felt the community around him crumbling. He doesn't remember exactly when it happened — maybe around 2000. Jim Hill, who is active in the Wilson Road Neighborhood Group, thinks the decline began in the late 1980s.
Neither man has hard numbers, but they think Rossville's quality of life declined in the last two decades. People have abandoned homes. Businesses have closed. It feels like crime has become more prevalent. Sheriff Steve Wilson said he couldn't speak to that; his department has not researched crime trends for the area.
In January 2015, Roden said he showed Heiskell pictures of 20 run-down buildings near Wilson Road. He asked for county employees to tear them down, believing their presence hurt property values. Roden said he contacted Heiskell seven times over the course of the year but didn't hear from her again until December. Even then, he said, the old buildings stood for months despite Roden and other community activists.
Heiskell and County Attorney Don Oliver did not return calls seeking comment.
On Feb. 3, after a burglar broke into a home at Mountain View Estates, Roden fired off an email to Wilson. He told the sheriff people in the neighborhood felt unsafe and that county officials stood by idly while the community slipped into disrepair. Wilson said he wanted to help.
Roden and others in Rossville then formed the neighborhood group. They partnered with Wilson, Deputy Bruce Coker, Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines, Family Connection Coordinator Susan Wells and Chamber of Commerce President Lacey Wilson.
The first meeting on March 1 at Mission Glen Baptist Church drew 120 people. Cars lined the road leading to the full parking lot. Within a week, Roden said, county employees tore down a couple of the buildings that members of the group had complained about. Meetings in April and May brought in about 50-70 people. They took a break for the summer, but they will hold their next meeting Aug. 25.
"Just watching people through social media," Hill said, "you can tell they're frustrated. They're looking for ideas and actions."
Members of the group have shared ambitious visions, hoping for everything from more job opportunities to better diets for low-income children. But, Roden said, the meetings have shown two main concerns: crime and codes enforcement. He hopes the first problem will be fixed when the sheriff's satellite office opens next month down the road from Mountain View Estates.
Concerning codes enforcement, Roden believes county employees should be more attentive. He doesn't understand why buildings slipped into disrepair and remained standing for years. He sees this as the next stage of the group's movement.
The laundromat is a key point of contention.
"I don't understand his protest"
On March 8, a week after the Wilson Road Neighborhood Group held its first meeting, King bought property across from Mountain View Estates and started working on his 10th laundromat.
Roden saw the new business as a threat to the community group's vision to recruit more homeowners to Rossville.
He and King have argued over zoning regulations.
Roden said the property is zoned residential — the property appraiser's website said the same — and should remain that way. Random commercial rezoning creates dysfunction, which makes the community look ugly, he said.
King said the property was actually zoned commercial back to the 1950s. But even if it isn't, the property can change to commercial because it sits next to a commercial zone. Mountain View Estates is across the street to the north and a self storage company sits across the street to the east.
While both sides wait for Heiskell's decision, they have gathered community support. King said 100 people signed a petition asking Heiskell to approve the laundromat's commercial zoning.
"There's nothing negative about it," King said.
Roden said 130 people signed a petition in opposition to the change.
"It just has a negative connotation," Roden said.
King has put up the walls, the roof and the windows for the business and paved the parking lot. He said he plans to install 16 security cameras to discourage crime. He also will put up lights. King said he has a permit from the county allowing him to perform the construction. No one from the county could be reached to confirm that permit.
Roden said King shouldn't be allowed to build when Heiskell hasn't made a final call.
And he said the neighborhood doesn't really need a laundromat. Fabric Care Coin Laundry sits open 1-1/2 miles away, on McFarland Avenue.
Mike Cameron, who helped plan the group's first meeting, split from the movement after Roden protested the laundromat.
"That area down there needs business development," he said. "A lot of those people are poor, and they need a place to wash their clothes."
Hill, meanwhile, said the group plans to help boost business in the area. For their Aug. 25 meeting, they will discuss with the Chamber of Commerce how to encourage more businesses.
At least, in their eyes, the right businesses.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.