Westside story: Falcons owner Arthur Blank trying to make a difference in Atlanta

Falcons owner making a difference in poverty stricken Atlanta (2:15)

Falcons owner Arthur Blank has a conversation with Westside Atlanta resident Shelby Duncan. Blank and more than 300 of his employees participated in a community service day that included painting Duncan's house. (2:15)

ATLANTA -- On the front porch of a modest home located at Griffin Street on Atlanta's Westside, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank extends a warm handshake to 38-year-old Billie Walker and her 2-year-old daughter.

Walker, a 10-year resident of the neighborhood, previously lived in a shelter for domestic violence victims. Now she resides here, in a house built by Habitat for Humanity. She constructed her own future by getting a job at the nearby Atlanta Children's Shelter, where she also serves as a Zumba instructor.

It's a story Walker shares with pride. And Blank listens intently while a contingent of his employees -- including Falcons coach Dan Quinn -- paint Walker's house in the background.

"Some people might not understand what you're doing and they may feel some kind of way about the demographics and the things that are going on, but me being a homeowner around all this abandonment and what you're doing with sowing into this neighborhood, it's awesome," Walker says to Blank. "It helps us to have a better living environment."

The neighborhood still needs a facelift.

Half the houses within the immediate vicinity of Walker's are boarded up. Graffiti is scribbled across doors and broken windows. Faded furniture is scattered about the driveways. Empty Doritos bags and Newport 100 boxes litter the curbs.

A few steps down the street stands a hobbled, bearded man wandering the intersection, raising his palm at cars as he tries to scrounge up change for a meal. About 500 feet away from him strolls a female streetwalker, advertising her services as she circles the block in flashy white high heels.

Blank's cameo appearance in this sketchy Westside area is part of a yearly community initiative involving more than 300 employees of his businesses, including the Falcons. Some might view it as a publicity stunt for an NFL owner trying to win over the public appeal, considering he has seats to fill in the new, $1.4 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium located not too far from Westside that is set to open next summer. But no matter how you dissect the situation, you can't exaggerate the impactful image of Blank walking these rugged streets without a brigade of security flocking him.

"You definitely don't want to be here at night," says one of the police officers sitting in a vehicle parked a block away.

Based on the scowls coming from the faces of some of the residents, not everybody welcomes the presence of Blank and his crew. It doesn't deter Blank, however, as he moves along the block with his fiancée, Angie Macuga, next to him.

For about 12 years, Blank and his foundation have been heavily involved in building up this financially challenged part of town. He committed $15 million to the Westside Neighborhood Prosperity Fund, an initiative of his foundation. (Invest Atlanta committed another $15 million.) Over the past decade, the Blank Foundation has dedicated nearly $10 million to Westside efforts focused on youth leadership, health and wellness, and green-space development.

"The Westside has been important to Atlanta and to our family for a long period of time," Blank says. "We've said this for seven years now -- ever since the stadium became a vision -- that we want to use the stadium as a catalyst for other changes coming to the Westside. And we think that's taking place.

"There's lot of work to be done. We've been working with many of the great partners. I feel like we're definitely making a difference."

There is a stark contrast between simply filtering money toward a cause and actually overseeing the roots of progress. Walker's story is indicative of someone who benefited from the helping hand Blank and others have extended.

Shelby Duncan is another example.

Duncan lives a few blocks from Walker in a home also built by Habitat for Humanity. As she describes her plight to Blank, Duncan recalls the shootings and drug deals she became accustomed to seeing daily before there was any commitment to building up the neighborhood.

What Duncan did not share with Blank was her own personal health issues.

"I was really sick one time; I had cancer," Duncan says. "It was in my lungs. My God healed me, and I thank him for that. But I suffered for like 10 years. I don't see anybody out here who is as small as I was. I was a walking toothpick. But I got them hips back now, so you know God is good to me.

"But it's a blessing to have Mr. Blank here. I try to laugh where I won't cry. It's a blessing to get your house painted -- for nothing. This shows you that there are still good people in this world."

Blank can relate to Duncan's bout with cancer. The 73-year-old had surgery to treat prostate cancer in mid-February and declared himself cancer-free. He lost about 10 pounds but looked healthy as he visited six Westside homes plus six other area sites where community enhancement projects were ongoing.

"I'm fine; I'm in good physical shape," Blank says upon ending the day at The First Tee of Atlanta, a nonprofit organization that teaches children and teens ages 8 to 18 life skills through golf. "This gives you energy. I lost weight and it's good weight, but I'm getting stronger."

So is Atlanta's Westside.