On a recent Saturday morning, some three dozen residents of southwest Atlanta gathered at the Dunbar Neighborhood and Recreation Center. They weren’t there for a book club or a basketball game, but for a discussion about community economic development.
For six months, this group met every two weeks to learn about concepts, tools, techniques and analysis that will enable them to envision and design their own community. The Community Economic Development Institute, one of the first programs of its kind, was sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and led by Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute and the University of Georgia’s Fanning Institute.
The curriculum for the six-month program included such topics as business attraction, public financing, small business and transit-oriented development. Instructors came from the private sector, state and local government, non-profit organizations and academia. Following their graduation in October 2008, class participants have been intimately involved in the strategic planning for the creation of a mixed-income, mixed-use development on a 31.4-acre tract of land owned by the Casey Foundation on University Avenue.
The site borders the planned Atlanta BeltLine, one of the most wide-ranging urban redevelopment efforts underway in the United States. The BeltLine project will address regional sprawl by combining green space, trails, transit and new development along 22 miles of historic rail segments that encircle Atlanta’s urban core.
“In a polarized society like the one we’re living in now, it takes a diverse group of people to make community development possible, and this program has provided the impetus and the tools to make the community what it can be,” said Thelma Sonia Graves, a retiree who represented the Joyland community at the Institute. “It empowered us and made all of us potential leaders.”
According to project director Kathryn Brice, knowledge and confidence gained from the sessions encouraged collaboration and dialogue among citizens, public and private agencies. The program, the second such session led by Brice, was enthusiastically received by the diverse participants and has already generated interest from similar, surrounding neighborhoods.
Sig Ehrmann, a schoolteacher at Fulton County’s Mount Olive Elementary and representative of the Sylvan Hills neighborhood, says the program has helped her understand that community economic development is like a puzzle.
“In the past, community projects have been done in crisis mode instead of planning ahead of time,” she noted. “The Community Economic Development Institute has taught me how to take the pieces of the puzzle – housing, workforce, financing, transportation – and put them together to affect change.”
The Community Economic Development Institute was the brainchild of David Hooker, then vice president for community building at The Center for Working Families, an Annie E. Casey Foundation initiative in inner-city Atlanta. In a 2007 workshop, five Georgia Tech graduate students in the School of Public Policy gathered data on the University Avenue neighborhood and reviewed diverse sources describing the area. They added information from interviews with developers concerning housing, zoning, existing land use, and demographic projections.
Under the direction of Georgia Tech faculty member Jan Youtie, the students determined that the area had potential for residential, office, retail, and light industrial development, but found that it also carried risks related to location, crime, vacancy and a mobile population. Their report recommended “a phased economic development strategy that addresses both near-term and long-term uses.”
Samuel Holland, a member of the Pittsburgh neighborhood, got involved with the project as a first-time home buyer. He said learning about community economic development can make a difference in attracting and keeping residents to the community.
“Education is so important,” he said, “and the biggest benefit to attending the workshops is I now know I can make a difference.”
This notion – that the more informed people are about the impacts of their decisions, the more likely they are to make decisions that truly support their own interests – is what instigated the Annie E. Casey Foundation to support this community economic development effort.
“The Casey Foundation has supported and invested significant resources in the development and implementation of the Community Economic Development Institute because we believe it’s a further demonstration of the way we want to do all of our work with the community,” said Mtamanika Youngblood, director of neighborhood transformation for the Casey Foundation. “Whenever we address a public challenge – in this case community economic development – we are committed to helping to build the community’s capacity to address that challenge. When we do both, meet a challenge and simultaneously build community, we call that working in the ‘sweet spot.’”
Even before the two sets of classes had completed their program, the Annie E. Casey Foundation began organizing Institute participants to participate in decisions about what would be built on the 31.4 acres. Based primarily on topics taught in the Institute’s program, participants selected areas of interest in which they wanted to gain further expertise. With the assistance of the foundation’s Neighborhood Transformation team, participants have met with experts in their chosen field, faculty from Georgia Tech and other colleges and universities, and other interested neighborhood residents to make recommendations about the vision they would like to create. The recommendations need to be approved by the Annie E. Casey Foundation after which they will be implemented.
Could this be a refreshingly new way of conducting community economic development efforts in the United States? Brice believes so.
“This was an untested pilot program where for the first time that I’m aware of economic development concepts were formally taught in the hopes of empowering individuals to take more control over their communities,” she said. “It has surpassed the expectations of all involved including, most importantly, the residents themselves. I’m sure this will be the beginning of a new way of approaching community economic development in other areas.”
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Writer: Nancy Fullbright