In Browntown, in Georgetown, in low- to moderate-income communities up and down Delaware, they’ve seen it happen before: an outpouring of ideas about how to fix the neighborhood and then … nothing.
“People in the past came up with ideas, but there was no follow-through,” says Ron Krystopolski, civic association president in Browntown, a blue-collar Wilmington neighborhood tucked between Maryland Avenue and Interstate 95, and a short walk from the city’s revitalized riverfront.
“Other efforts like this have fallen by the wayside. We don’t want that to happen this time,” says Linda Price, manager of the Fulton Bank branch in Georgetown.
A new sense of hope is building in Browntown and Georgetown this year because they’re the newest additions to a program that develops community leaders, builds their confidence through intensive training and shows them how to access the financial resources needed to strengthen their neighborhoods.
“We’re learning to work together,” Krystopolski said. “As a team, with the right resources, we’re gaining the confidence to do things we didn’t think we could do before.”
Browntown and Georgetown are now Blueprint Communities, a program created in 2005 by the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh and brought to Delaware in 2008 after successful beginnings in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The nation’s 12 Federal Home Loan Banks provide their member banks with a steady source of funds to finance mortgage and small business loans. Their federal charter requires that they set aside 10 percent of their earnings each year for community investments, said David Buches, FHLB Pittsburgh’s regional manager for community investment and overseer of the Blueprint Communities program in Delaware. Many of those investments are in affordable housing projects.
FHLB Pittsburgh receives more than 100 affordable housing proposals a year, and it found that the proposals most likely to succeed were submitted by organizations that had made housing part of a larger plan for community development, Buches said. To improve the quality of proposals and to increase the likelihood that they would be successful, he said, FHLB created the Blueprint Communities model.
While promoting affordable housing was the program’s original goal in 2005, Buches said Blueprint Communities has evolved into “a capacity-building, leadership development, planning initiative. We want to give communities the capacity to do comprehensive project development.”
Blueprint Communities contracted with the Center for Community Research and Service at the University of Delaware to provide training for communities selected for the program. “You can’t just plan,” says Steve Peuquet, the center’s director. “You need a connection between planning and program development.”
Throughout 2008 the center provided the training to build that connection for nine nine-member “community teams,” consisting of neighborhood residents, at least one government official and a banker employed by an FHLB member bank. By early 2009, each team had completed a revitalization plan for its neighborhood.
“We’re hesitant to tell communities what their issues are,” Peuquet said. “We help with analysis, data collection and planning, but each community is in control of their process, their priorities and what they intend to do.”
Each of the plans was different, Peuquet said, but some common themes emerged, especially services to youth, reducing crime, promoting decent affordable housing and encouraging economic development.
In 2010 and 2011, the communities, with continuing support from the university, including guidance on where to seek financing for their projects, began to implement their plans.
According to FHLB, the nine plans triggered more than $27 million in community development programs, construction or rehabilitation of 118 housing units, 10 infrastructure improvements and the launch of six other community projects. FHBL committed $250,000 toward the affordable housing initiatives and $215,000 in business loans, and the Delaware Community Investment Consortium, a group of local banks, along with the Jessie Ball du Pont Fund provided another $325,000 in grants.
Small businesses located in or near Blueprint Communities can also benefit from the program, said Michael D. Skipper, vice president and community development manager for WSFS Bank, which had employees working on four of the original community teams. Situations vary among communities, he said; but, when evaluating businesses that are seeking financing, “we look for stability in the community, whether the community is supportive of the business being there.”
The program has no hard and fast definition of “success,” Buches said.
In the first year, “we look for a cohesive team of dedicated stakeholders and did they come up with a plan that reflects the priorities of the community,” he said. “Delivering on the activities and strategies in your plan” is the goal for the second and third years, he said. “It’s kind of a loosey measure — like I’ll know it if I see it.”
“Our challenge is to bring parties together, to bridge differences. On the front end, you don’t realize how challenging this can be,” Peuquet said. “Some teams have been very successful in bridging those differences, but our success isn’t the same in every community.”
Six of the nine communities — Eastside, Hilltop/Little Italy and Riverside in Wilmington and Edgemoor Revitalization Cooperative, Simonds Gardens and Claymont’s Historic Overlook Colony — made continued progress and earned recertification late last year. Belvedere/Cedar Heights and Wilmington’s Second District dropped out of the program and the Dover Community Partnership was absorbed into the city’s downtown improvement district.
The six recertified communities will continue to receive training along with the members of the Browntown and Georgetown groups, Peuquet said.
Ongoing training is important, Peuquet and Buches said, because community-building work is intensive, and some original team members drop out and their replacements then need to learn the process.
Cheri Whitney, executive director of the Edgemoor Revitalization Cooperative, considered one of Blueprint’s major successes, understands the value of more training. She said she is still looking for ways to persuade many of Edgemoor Gardens’ longtime residents to become more involved in the effort. “You can build all the houses you want, but if you don’t build a community, you haven’t accomplished much,” she said.
The new participants from Georgetown and Browntown, however, have seen and heard of the progress made in Edgemoor and other neighborhoods, and they are hoping to emulate those successes in their own communities.
David Archer, the Fulton Bank branch manager working with the Browntown group, talks about growing up in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and being shocked by the deterioration of the Polish community where his grandparents lived. “I’d hate to see what happened in that community happen in Browntown,” he said.
As he has gotten to know the residents on the Browntown team, he has been impressed by their optimism, their dedication and their desire to avoid the lack of follow-through that stalled previous improvement efforts.
“We need to come up with something to show the other residents, so they will know we’ll get things done,” he said.
Price, the bank manager who is leading the Georgetown team, is impressed that Delaware’s first Blueprint Communities “started in 2008 and are still going strong,” and is looking to building new partnerships as her team puts together its plan.
“Can I tell you what will happen two or three years from now? Probably not,” she said. “But if we can do it right, I think we’ll see it continue.”