In a report to Gov. Jack Markell, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh called the first Blueprint Communities initiative “a major success in Delaware.”
With nine communities participating, some did better than others. Here is a look at four Blueprint Communities — two of the original nine, and the two named to participate in the second cycle.
One experienced significant success, one started slowly, and the two new ones have high hopes.
Six years ago, Cheri Whitney, then a renter, began going to meetings of the Edgemoor Gardens Civic Association, but she didn’t like what she heard and saw. The association’s leaders didn’t let renters participate in the organization and, she recalled, “there was so much fussing, fighting and arguing that nothing ever got done.”
Examining four Blueprint Communities
Excerpts of DFM News interview with Cheri Whitney, executive director of the Edgemoor Revitalization Cooperative.
The community of a little more than 2,000 people, living in tightly-packed row houses built in the 1940s, experienced all the problems typical of low-income neighborhoods: lots of litter, poor property maintenance, frequent crime and residents who didn’t feel capable of creating a better neighborhood.
Whitney, tired of the bickering and infighting, got together with four other women — “we called ourselves the Founding Mothers,” she said — and started holding their own meetings, talking about problems with trash, open space, the lack of programs for kids.
By the summer of 2006, they had created a new organization, the Edgemoor Revitalization Cooperative Inc. (ERC), which was chosen in 2008 to become one of Delaware’s first Blueprint Communities.
That summer, the real estate bubble burst, and Whitney lost her job as a mortgage processor. Her job loss became Edgemoor Gardens’ gain. “It was like a miracle that I had this much time to dedicate to [Blueprint Communities]. A lot of other teams did not have that one passionate person, who had enough time to do it,” she said.
“Edgemoor has done yeoman’s work,” said Steve Peuquet, director of the Center for Community Research and Service at the University of Delaware, which provides the Blueprint Communities training. Its accomplishments, Peuquet said, include: buying a house and turning it into a community resource center, working with the Brandywine School District to create an after-school tutoring program, building partnerships with other community organizations and working with Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware on an affordable housing rehabilitation project.
“They practice what they preach,” Peuquet said.
The ERC Resource Center, a rehabbed unit that glows next to its mostly rundown neighbors, now houses an after-school program for neighborhood youth. Whitney runs that program, which includes a variety of career-oriented clubs, social events and suppers for low-income children.
The Resource Center is also a model for what’s going on elsewhere in the neighborhood. Interfaith Community Housing acquired 10 abandoned and foreclosed homes, paying an average of $40,000 for them, and is rehabbing them now. The energy-efficient 1,100-square-foot homes — with three bedrooms, new appliances and hardwood floors — are being listed at $73,900, said Dennis Sheer, development director at Interfaith Community Housing. Buyers will have to commit to living in the properties for 10 years, Sheer and Whitney said. Within five years, ERC hopes to have 20 to 24 properties rehabilitated.
There’s still much more to do, Whitney said, including building better intergenerational relationships, reversing the current 70-30 renter to homeowner ratio, improving community safety and turning open space into parkland.
Through Blueprint Communities, Whitney has become adept at writing grant applications and the progress the community is making increases the odds that future applications will be approved.
“When funders read our applications, they see that we’ve been successful,” she said. “And it’s easy to fund success.”
Historic Overlook Colony
While Edgemoor Gardens might have been an instant success as a Blueprint Community, Peuquet calls Claymont’s Historic Overlook Colony Vicinity one that has “a lot of potential.”
The community team developed a plan, but hasn’t accomplished much of it, according to Peuquet and Brett Saddler, the team’s original chairman and executive director of the Claymont Renaissance Development Corp., a larger redevelopment effort.
“Problems got tied up in the Claymont Renaissance process to some extent” and “stops and starts” characterized the progress,” Peuquet said. “They’re also dealing with preservation of housing stock, and that’s not a cheap thing to do.”
The Overlook Colony vicinity, which includes Overlook Colony, Clearfield, Claymont Addition and Kenilworth, is on the west side of Philadelphia Pike, extending from Harvey Road north to Second Street with Green Street as its western boundary. The first homes in Overlook Colony were built about 100 years ago.
Key objectives in the community’s plan included: promoting pride in residents, historic preservation, improving safety and lighting, and building community and neighborhood involvement.
One of the first goals, Saddler said, was to improve the Overlook Colony entrance from Philadelphia Pike at Commonwealth Avenue, by realigning the intersection and adding identifying signage. That hasn’t happened yet — but it will soon, he said, as part of a larger state Department of Transportation project that will narrow Philadelphia Pike through Claymont from four lanes to three, making it more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. Work is supposed to start in the spring, he said.
Meanwhile, Saddler said, early attempts to get more residents involved in the effort stalled when Overlook Colony’s civic association broke down. Through UD’s Center for Community Research and Service, members of the Public Allies service corps have been helping identify new leaders in the community and a new civic association, the United Neighbors of Overlook and Clearfield, has been formed. “They’re bringing more people to the table, and they’ve scheduled a spring cleanup fair for March,” he said.
In the next few weeks, the team hopes to complete negotiations with a bank to finance some home rehabilitation work, Saddler added.
“Community development isn’t easy. To make any real change, all the pieces of the puzzle have to come together,” Saddler said. “Sometimes they do it on the first try. Sometimes they do better the second time.”
Unlike the neighborhoods chosen as Delaware’s other Blueprint Communities, Georgetown is actually a town, with its own government and longstanding traditions.
In some respects, that may make organizing easier but it’s also a cause of some concern, said Linda Price, the Fulton Bank branch manager who is leading the Georgetown Blueprint Community team.
While preparing the Blueprint Community application last year and building awareness of the process in the last two months, Price said she and her colleagues on the team were sometimes greeted with skepticism and fear — skepticism because “other efforts like this have fallen by the wayside” and the fear that shows when people ask “are you coming in to take over?”
The team, while still trying to determine it direction, is optimistic that its efforts will succeed, and, by building partnerships and strengthening lines of communication, it will work with other community institutions, not take over their duties, she said. The team’s membership is diverse, including not only residents but also representatives of the Perdue poultry processing plant and the First State Community Action and La Esperanza social services agencies.
“When we came into this, we had nine different personalities,” she said, referring to the team members. “Everybody has their own agenda.”
While being trained on Blueprint Community strategies, the Georgetown team members are beginning their research and trying to set priorities. “We need information from all our residents and all our businesses, so we can find out what they want us to be working on,” she said.
Some broad objectives have already been identified, Price said. They include:
- Economic development: figuring out what kind of businesses to bring into town and why there hasn’t been much success lately in attracting new business.
- Tourism and culture: using the old train station, the old firehouse, and other historic buildings to create a focal point for tourism, and adding walking and cycling trails to make downtown more friendly to visitors and pedestrians.
- Keeping the next generation in town: despite increased educational opportunities at the local campuses of Delaware Technical Community College and Wilmington University, Georgetown’s young people tend to leave after completing their education rather than becoming adult residents of the town.
Looking back is not an option. “Georgetown is a very old town. Some people want it to be like it was in the ’50s, but you can’t go backwards,” Price said.
Looking forward, the team will continue to reach out. “Our team of nine is like the center of the bull’s eye. We have to reach out, add extra rings to the target,” she said. “Part of the process is partnering with other organizations as you grow and evolve.”
As Blueprint Communities go, Browntown has a chance to become the next Edgemoor Gardens. There are some similarities.
Both are aging blue-collar communities, Edgemoor just outside Wilmington and Browntown along Maryland Avenue just inside the city limits. Once predominantly white, both are now ethnically diverse.
“We were once mostly Polish and Irish. Now we have Spanish-speaking, African-American, Dominican and Jamaican,” says Ron Krystopolski, a 56-year-old retired Wilmington firefighter who has spent his entire life in Browntown and now heads the neighborhood’s civic association.
In Edgemoor, a new group formed to focus on revitalization when the civic association was overcome with bickering. In Browntown, the civic association itself has changed.
“It used to be a shout and holler thing. Nothing ever got done,” Krystopolski said. Now, the board of directors distributes 800 flyers by hand to announce each meeting, 30 to 50 residents turn out, city police give regular reports, and state, city and New Castle County lawmakers show up just about every month.
But still there’s something missing. “It’s tough to do things without money,” Krystopolski said.
It’s not just about the money, of course, but finding sources of funds is essential to making lasting improvements. The Blueprint Communities team, led by resident Yvette Murray, has lots of goals to consider as it prepares its plan. Among them: finding a place for a community center, developing fresh programs to keep children busy, working with businesses on Maryland Avenue to improve their appearance, reducing drug dealing and crime in the neighborhood, cleaning up streets and vacant lots, and persuading landlords and renters to take better care of their properties.
That’s a tall order, but the Blueprint Communities training is already helping team members.
“It gives us confidence. We’re learning how to work together, how to get things done,” Krystopolski said. “And Yvette is already looking for grants.”