One mayor whose application rose to the top was Ronnie Harris of Gretna, La. With the grant money, Gretna -- a city of 3.5 square miles and 17,500 residents just across the Mississippi from New Orleans -- will use a single Magellan Mobile Mapper unit and the ArcPad software to collect the exact location of its vacant properties.

Whoever conducts the survey will also capture the location of each building's water and sewer lines and other relevant information, and then transfer that data into the city's existing ESRI ArcView GIS system to create a comprehensive map of vacant properties.

Change is Good

"The first thing we're going to do is identify all of the vacant properties on the map so we can see where the concentration is," Harris said, explaining that the mapping will help the city set priorities when it targets buildings for demolition or renovation. "We want to go into a neighborhood and make an immediate impact. You take two or three properties closely located, and it can turn around an entire neighborhood."

Gretna started working on this kind of blight removal in the mid- to late 1990s, and the program has been very successful, Harris said.

"When we tear down a dilapidated house, we find that the neighborhood immediately picks up in appearance as well as pride," he said, adding that private owners are often inspired by the city's actions to fix up or demolish their own decaying properties.

Harris also expects to use the Mobile Mapper and ArcPad for projects outside the grant's scope -- for example, to map the public utilities infrastructure for better management of repairs.

"That will help us in development of various neighborhoods, to bring them up a notch," he said. City officials have been talking with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about possible funding for GIS data collection.

Although Gretna didn't suffer the flooding that overwhelmed neighboring cities after Hurricane Katrina, storm winds caused major damage, and some residents who left their homes apparently aren't coming back. Meanwhile, an influx of people from more devastated communities has created a huge demand for real estate in a city with virtually no undeveloped land.

Harris doesn't know how many properties in Gretna fell vacant because of Katrina, but the new technology will help the city find out, he said. City officials can try to persuade owners to either sell their properties or turn them over to the community so someone else can use them.

"Affordable housing is extremely tight in the New Orleans market," Harris said.

As new residents in Gretna become active community members, he said, the dynamic of the whole metropolitan area has changed, and city officials feel that change can become an asset for the city.

"We want to be 100 percent occupied and 100 percent fully functional," Harris said, "and with this blighted housing we're not there yet."

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer