REACH Riverside has partnered with Atlanta-based Purpose Built Communities to bring radical, systemic change to Wilmington’s Riverside neighborhood. REACH Riverside is implementing a model that offers a three-pronged approach to change with high-quality mixed-income housing; a cradle-to-college education pipeline; and community wellness programs. According to REACH Riverside, the neighborhood today has 70% of children living in poverty; a median household income of $20,388; 32% of adults working; and 38% of adults without a diploma. The only national restaurant chain that operates in Riverside is Popeye’s Fried Chicken and part of this discussion centers on getting retailers besides dollar stores to open their doors in the neighborhood. But the community is mobilizing around the effort, as this roundtable demonstrates. This discussion has been edited for length and clarity and we welcome comments to our moderator, editor Peter Osborne or in the comments section.
CEO of REACH Riverside, a community development corporation created to lead a holistic revitalization in the Riverside neighborhood of Northeast Wilmington. The vision is to build 600 units of mixed-income housing, a new Kingswood Community Center and create a teen-focused co-working facility for teens (The Warehouse) that will allow service and program providers to work together under one roof.
Chairman of the REACH Riverside board of directors and a retired Potter Anderson partner who chaired the firm’s Business Group and practiced in the area of business and finance transactions. McDowell spent about 15 years connecting with East Side Charter School,
Mayor of the City of Wilmington and formerhead of the Riverfront Development Corp., where he was tasked with the challenging job of resurrecting the blighted industrial zone. He and his team reinvented and reinvigorated
Executive director of the newly formed Wilmington Alliance. Previously served as executive director of Wilmington Renaissance Corp. She is a board member for the Rodney Square Conservancy. She entered the nonprofit sector after working for JPMorgan Chase in Wilmington where she managed Risk Governance and Controls.
CEO of EastSide Charter School. He previously served as the chief of staff for the KIPP Philadelphia Schools for five years and as dean and then CEO/principal for KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy over a 12-year period.
Councilwoman for Wilmington’s Third District. Represents the Riverside neighborhood. Through her nonprofit organization, Zanny’s Inc., she is a mentor for at-promise female students in the Christina School District.
|Vandell (Van) Hampton Jr.
President and CEO of True Access Capital (formerly First State Community Loan Fund). Hampton oversees a community development financial institution that provides access to capital and technical assistance to small businesses, serving underserved populations, including women and minority-led companies and low-income individuals.
Director of planning and economic development for the City of Milford. He worked for Kent County Levy Court from 2005-2015 as a Geographic Information Systems specialist and an engineering project manager.
Let’s start with your views of the neighborhood.
Mike Purzycki: This is an important neighborhood with a rich history. It’s also a neighborhood that’s had its challenges in the past. It’s been Wilmington public housing for decades and decades. And so what’s happened is it’s been a debilitating neighborhood that the WHA has closed houses over many years. And so housing stock is not only worse qualitatively, but quantitatively. You see the neighborhood shrinking. But at the same time, we feel that it’s still a neighborhood with a rich tradition. There are people who live here who want their city and their neighborhoods to be better. And I think there are a lot of reasons why we believe this is a good neighborhood to try to bring back in a comprehensive way.
Logan Herring: Carol Naughton, the president of Purpose Built Communities, the organization that we’re working with out of Atlanta, says, “You have to compete for your residents.” We want to create a neighborhood where not only the folks in the neighborhood want to be here, but everybody wants to live here. And then we create opportunities for prosperity, whether it’s within this neighborhood, with the neighborhood. And you’re going to hear me say that over and over again “with the neighborhood.” This is not charity work. This is an effort that needs to engage the neighborhood to be a part of this process. So we just want to eliminate every single barrier we can, provide every opportunity we can, and provide options for people so they have an understanding of what it takes to be prosperous and to make sure that they have hope and faith that they can do whatever it takes to live that American dream.
You’re talking about residents to a great degree. Is there a component there that includes businesses and companies’ investments, from grocery stores, that sort of thing?
Herring: Absolutely. On the table right now, we have three potential opportunities on funds that we’re working with, including an investor out of Singapore. We have people that are very interested in this community.
Another thing Carol says is to make sure you’re ahead of your success. So we understand that this, hopefully in the near future, is going to be a community where not only residents want to live here, but businesses want to operate here. And we have to make sure that those businesses are supportive of the neighborhood and not predatory on the neighborhood. So in doing so, we are currently in the search for a director of economic development to make sure that person not only works with our residents but existing and future business owners to make sure that we all understand what the vision is for this neighborhood and we are all in alignment.
Zanthia Oliver: This is a low-income neighborhood. I have family members who no longer live over here but were first-time home buyers who are really successful now. Public housing has become a cavity over in this neighborhood. We’ve had meetings with nice turnouts and they’re looking forward to the change. Most of the people, their family members have passed away or moved into in this neighborhood. We’ve had meetings over here with nice turnouts and they’re looking forward to the change over here. Most of the people, their family members have passed away or moved in high-risers and it’s just a different generation who just don’t have any hopes.
Charles McDowell: I think it has been the common wisdom that education is the key to social mobility and, economic mobility. I got involved at EastSide Charter some years ago because I thought that this was a neighborhood whose kids needed a better opportunity. But it became obvious that it didn’t make a whole lot of difference what you did in six or seven hours of the day in school if the kids are going home to unsafe neighborhoods and families that are challenged with poverty. And so that’s why the purpose-built communities model that REACH Riverside has adopted is a holistic approach to neighborhood revitalization. You have to have high-quality housing. You have to have an outstanding education system and you have to have health and wellness facilities to serve the neighborhood as well as the business and economic and mercantile interests that also are necessary for a robust neighborhood. That is why many of us are so involved in this project.
Aaron Bass: The education of youth is what makes the success of any society. I think for this community you have some of the greatest families, you have some of the greatest love in this area and you have parents and grandparents and caretakers that want the best for their children. We want to be the best in the state as far as test scores. Whatever the competition is, we want to compete for our residents. We want to compete for our families. And so our children should be performing at the top of whatever assessment you give us, we can perform there.
Renata, how does the revitalization of this neighborhood impact what you’re doing with Wilmington Alliance?
Renata Kowalczyk: It supports our economic and community development agenda, on micro and macro level. For example, it gives us an opportunity to be a meaningful partner bringing opportunities to bridge the downtown businesses with the needs of teens and the Warehouse and potentially create employment and business opportunities for those teens.
What have you learned from what’s happened in Southbridge, as you look at what comes next here?
Purzycki: I don’t know that there’s a Southbridge strategy at all, to tell you the truth. Southbridge has always been a relatively healthy community with good, strong traditions, so I think they’re really a one-off in this city. Eden Park is a great project [that says], “We care about our kids. We care about the condition of the parks they play in.” We’re working in Southbridge. We’re doing Hicks-Anderson over, of course. Salesianum is doing Baynard Stadium. We’ve done six neighborhood parks. So I think that’s one leg of this stool, if you will.
Michael Nutter, former mayor of Philadelphia, came to speak some time ago and said, “Anybody who tells you this is easy, stay away from them because they’re dangerous.” The truth is people talk about simple solutions. It’s offensive, I think, to those of us who work in the trenches because it makes it sound like there is a simple alternative that you guys just aren’t smart enough to use. They don’t exist. This is very complex. These are social issues.
Everybody wants a commercial center. Everybody puts a zoning map and says, “Here’s where Neiman-Marcus goes.” It doesn’t come here. It doesn’t come here unless there are people here with the money to patronize those stores.
You have to go slow. You have to try to slowly get people prepared for jobs, then get them jobs so they can spend money over here. And by the way, they’ve got to be spending money at a greater clip than some of the dysfunction that’s pulling down on the neighborhood at the same time.
So this to me, the great appeal here is the commitment by the people around this table who believe deeply in this approach to doing it, which I believe in the end is the only approach. I mean what Charlie calls the holistic approach to try to uplift a community.
Oliver: I grew up in Southbridge, which is an island by itself. We are one big family over there. You can still leave your door open in most of the areas over there. Over here, it’s totally different. A lot of people call me about the Dollar Stores in this area and I ask, “Well, what kind of stores do you expect to come over here Who’s going to go spend the money?” Harry’s Savoy Grill is not coming over here. Until this revitalization [takes hold], it’s going to be what it is. I think it is a work in process.
Herring: I spoke to the Delaware Healthy Mother Infant Consortium yesterday down in Dover and they asked a similar question. “What do you think about the dollar stores?” And I said, “I understand that there are articles nationwide that say dollar stores are predatory.” But we just want to make sure that the people in our neighborhood have options. I don’t mind there being a dollar store in the neighborhood. But let’s have more than a dollar store, a corner store and a Popeye’s Chicken. Chris Kenny of ShopRite sat here maybe a month ago and said, “The economics just don’t support a big-box grocery here in this neighborhood, but maybe we can help you attract an Aldi or some type of small grocer to support the neighborhood.” So we have to work within the confines of what we have right now to bring as many positive options to the neighborhood so people have an opportunity to make educated choices.
How do you balance that very delicate line between revitalizing the neighborhood and serving the people who are here and gentrifying?
Hampton: When you look at the riverfront and the downtown, there weren’t many people living down there. So there wasn’t a whole lot of re-gentrification that went on. The hope is that folks get an opportunity to come back and things are put in place so they have a path to come back. It’s not easy. You have to set some goals around who’s going to come back and what opportunities are going to get people to come back. But there’s got to be a will for that to happen. And if there’s not a will or a plan in place, that’s when you see the re-gentrification happen.
Herring: That term “gentrification” is a hot button. The definition of gentrification is basically just taking a low-income neighborhood and transforming it to a modern or a higher-income neighborhood. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re displacing anyone, but that often happens. So that’s why people are averse to that term. The number of houses in this community have dwindled about 40% which, fortunately, leaves us with a critical mass of land that’s vacant. The first three phases of development in our project are going to be built on vacant land. By the time those houses are built and we begin moving people from one side of the street to the other, we will have vacant houses that can be demolished. The goal for our entire project is not to have to displace anyone off the footprint. We also want to secure some tax abatements for existing homeowners so when the value in the homes in these neighborhoods increase that we’re not pushing people out because they can’t afford to pay the taxes. So those are some of the tactics that we’re using and we’re focusing on. But again, gentrification in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Bass: Anybody who’s living in a poverty situation wants to do better. We have to provide better job opportunities for residents. It’s about having strong education so that the children who are living here can connect that to what they’ll be doing later in life. We’ve had businesses come in. We’ve shared information and had parents be hired on the spot because our simple math is that if our parents are doing better, then our children do better. We also have computer programs that we teach people how to use computers and then we give them to them because we want to have more computer access in the home. The more we’re able to have this holistic environment across the board here in Riverside, then we can also make sure that it’s not about moving people out. It’s about elevating people to where they really want to be.
McDowell: A huge component of the purpose-built approach and the REACH Riverside approach is building human capital. And we’re going to build some nice new buildings, but the most important thing in order to make the project sustainable in the way that we wanted to be is to help the people who live here now develop the skills and attributes that will allow them to prosper and do better going forward. And that’s really hard to do. I mean no offense to the mayor here for what was accomplished on the riverfront, but I think building great buildings is hard, but building great buildings and also building the human capital to occupy those buildings is a lot harder.
Rob, you grew up in this area here and are now down in Milford. Can you talk a bit about the challenges facing Milford?
Rob Pierce: In Milford, our area is more focused on our downtown historic district and the low-income older areas that surround that part of the town. So, we’re trying to bring in new businesses to our downtown. But again, we need to lift up the neighborhoods that surround it and similar to here, we have a lot of vacant properties, a lot of older homes that have been dilapidated or probably need to be demolished or severely renovated. So, we’re working with the State of Delaware through their Downtown Development District Program. The northern part is in an opportunity zone so we’re just trying to use whatever resources we have to attract investment. But our primary focus for the residential portion is eliminating blighted structures, ensuring that tenants have safe housing. We’ve implemented a rental inspection program within the last couple of years just to make sure that they have good conditions and that we’re doing our part to make sure that the neighborhoods are safe.
I’ve heard the word “metrics” four or five times already during this. Can you talk a little bit about how you’re going to assess success and what is the timeline you’re working under?
Herring: OK. So, within Riverside, we’re fortunate to have a partner in Delaware State University and Delaware State University has actually created a center for neighborhood revitalization research, and So all of the metric gathering will be led by the great institution of Delaware State University and Dorothy Dillard is the lead on that. Dorothy Dillard who is the lead on that. So that’s everything broad or very granular in terms of the metrics. And I think Charlie could probably touch on some of those items. He’s a little bit more intimately involved with the gathering of those metrics or at least identifying which ones we need to hit. But they are everything from purpose-built national metrics that we are looking at as far as this region and the census tracking.
McDowell: The educational system, I think, is somewhat easier since there is a well-established Department of Education-managed measurement of students’ performance against proficiency standards. And so, we’ll obviously be looking at that. The third grade and eighth grade proficiency and then the graduation rate. And then the other factors would be the percentage employed, the average income of the family, the safety statistics, the whole realm of demographic data.
Purzycki: There are some metrics that are pretty tempting to use but I think they tend to be misleading. We deal with crime statistics as some indicator of how things are going. I think it probably is an indicator of how my police department’s doing. I don’t think it tells me very much about my city because when we have people commit crimes that are so unthinkable it betrays underlying problems in a community.
On the education side, I’m personally frustrated by our obsession with test scores. I think it betrays too many of the underlying problems that some students have and others don’t have.
What’s missing in our communities are young people coming out of school who learn to love learning and who are engaged in education. There are a lot of pretty ordinary students who get through life and become superstars as time goes on. So, they’ve prepared enough to do well and they learn to feel good about their own sense of accomplishment and their own sense of self because they learned to love learning. If you keep battering them with low test scores and I just wonder how these kids want to go to school the next day. Now people accused me all the time of lowering the bar and I get people who are generally offended by it. But I think we have to be realistic. Somebody has to have the secret formula and if somebody has it, then we use it. But frankly, you see school after school after school that has high-poverty kids perform at a modest rate and then the ones that really do perform, you will find some distinguishable kind of factors such as test scores or parents who are highly engaged or some middle-class parents in the mix. So, I’m pretty skeptical about all those things.
Bass: I agree. The national data and the state data and local data all say that poverty has a huge impact on student outcomes. What we’re trying to focus on with education is how to connect a child with this education, what it means for you down the road. We’re having conversations with kindergartners, with-third graders, with eighth-graders, “What do you want to be? And that all the work that you’re doing because we do know that the reading and math is the key to access to that job opportunity. So, let’s connect? You want to be in the NFL, the NBA, you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, mayor, city council person or a business leader, great. This is what it takes to get there.”
We’ve even started a program trying to help many of our students understand what their competition looks like. And so there are children right now at East Side who will be taking classes at Tatnell, Tower Hill, Sanford and Wilmington Friends School. Why? Because you need to understand that what you see in front of you is not just your competition. You are competing with students at other places who have a different background, who will still be in your classes at UD, Harvard, Del State University, wherever you happen to go and that they are coming in with some other knowledge that you have to have. The more we can connect our kids, the more we can make sure that our children can access opportunities outside of what they just see in Riverside. And we’re hoping to even bring those inside Riverside.
Purzycki: If you go to Howard, they have five different tracks over there. But all the construction trades, which by the way are the highest-paying vocations out there today, nobody signs up for them. It’s like the kids don’t even think of that as a choice for them. It’s not something they’re interested in. Of course, they don’t see people going to work every day the way, I guess, blue collar people did in the past. There’s this tremendous opportunity to make a lot of money out there and young kids don’t even sign up for it because it’s not something they feel or have seen. The program’s there, you can tell kids, here’s how much money you can make, this is what you can be. But they’re not drawn to it. So what are they drawn to? They’re drawn to the devices that they see all the time.
And it’s an aging workforce. I mean, that is an aging workforce with the over-45s, over-55s and they’re in desperate need in the construction industry.
Bass: I have a student who was in first grade last year, wants to be a trucker. That is his goal. When you’re 6, that’s what you think about. And so we’re trying to figure out the engineering, to get them together to become a transformer and become a trucker later on in life. That whatever a child wants to be, that is our focus. I have children right now who in their vision plans want to become police officers. I have children who want to become carpenters. I have children who want to become everything imaginable. The key is, what we find is, too often the children who have these dreams when they’re 5 can’t even comprehend that world when they’re 18. And it’s not because the child has failed, it’s because the adults around them fail. And so we have to make sure that as adults that we’re providing those children access to opportunities. That they become what they want to become. And that they’re not being forced to live in a certain place or take a certain role because they don’t have opportunity. That’s why I’m actually a part of REACH Riverside because we know that our children when they graduate will have opportunity. And it’s because they have a great support team around them from all different levels. That want to see them succeed. And that it wasn’t because they don’t have something.
Van, you and I talked a month or two ago about investment in this community and you said, not quite yet, but it’s coming. What is the metric you’re looking for that will say to you it’s time?
Hampton: I just think people living here who have resources to spend money. Other businesses here, that’s the real challenge. There’s a reason why the dollar stores are coming. They’re coming because people are going in and they’re spending money in the dollar stores. So as this neighborhood starts to build up, as folks here increase their wealth and they can go out and they can spend money, you’ll see the businesses come. I don’t think it’s rocket science. One of my concerns though is that we work with the folks who are here who want to be a part of this opportunity, who want to start businesses here. And that’s going to take a lot of work. That’s going to take … we’re working with the New Destiny Fellowship across the street, Destiny CDC. We’ve done several workshops with them, business planning courses. And part of what we’re interested in doing is helping build people up. While all this development and planning is going on, we want to get people ready so they can take advantage of the opportunities that are going to come. Because it’s going to come. And the folks who want to be most in a better position to take advantage of it are the people who are ready. People living here who have got dreams. We need to provide some resources and support so they can take advantage of this opportunity that’s coming. And it’s not just on us. It’s on them. They have to take advantage of the support and the resources that are out there.
Renata, what is it going to take for organizations like yours and the Delaware Prosperity Partnership to bring businesses down here and get somebody to take a chance on the community?
Kowalczyk: The things that we’re hearing are education and talent pool. That’s why K-12 education is important. We do a lot of work in the workforce development space. I heard the word holistic a few times mentioned today. Looking at education and workforce development holistically is important. What we hear is that it’s not good enough to just give folks training. But those folks need, and this is my description, their lives to be supported. I recently met a person who took four buses every day to get to our five-week training. And I met his wife and two kids and they were there and proud of him. He needs a vehicle. So we’re now working with a nonprofit who we are going to bring to Wilmington, that specifically works with the underserved population to help them sort through credit situations to be able to get an auto loan. We need to be thinking about housing. We have plenty of supply, but what about building the demand for the ownership, from the community? So when we’re talking about bringing in businesses here, they need to be able to see themselves living and thriving at a place they will call their community, a neighborhood. I think REACH Riverside is definitely on the right path to do that.
But all that kind of sounds a bit squishy.
Purzycki: There are no simple formulas for success. So everybody wants to work. I don’t think that’s true, but let’s assume everybody wants to work. If you get a guy a job and he makes $12 an hour, he’s making $24,000 a year. Go live on $24,000 a year if you’ve got two kids. So what happens is, you finally get somebody to a place, you’ve trained them, you’ve given him support, he finally gets to work. And then he realizes, I can’t live on this. This isn’t even the mini promised land for me. Because all this time I’ve been living on the streets, I’ve been living like a non-productive citizen. You’ve given me an opportunity. I now have a job, I’m working and I can’t even afford to pay my utility bill. So now he gets behind on his utility bill. One day they shut off his utilities. You need somebody there to help people through this. Because this is not going to be easy even after they’re employed. It’s not easy.
You have a prison in the neighborhood and this is one of the three or four ZIP codes in the state where the most inmates are moving to after they leave the prison system. Does that help or hurt this effort?
Purzycki: It cannot help when you have that many men returning. They all need supports. They all need help. It’s a challenge. It’s a huge challenge.
Hampton: It’s definitely a critical aspect of our work to work with individuals, whether they’re ex-offenders or not, to make sure they have opportunities for meaningful employment. Livable wage jobs where they can actually pay their bills or any other financial obligations that they may have.
Purzycki: You know how easy it is to get a really high water bill. You just have to have a leak in some utility in your house that you don’t pick up. And at the end, it used to be a quarter, mercifully, now it’s a month, you might have a $300 water bill. Normally it’s $40. You budget for $40, and here comes $400. And that’s reality, that happens.
What is the biggest barrier to success of this effort as we look ahead?
Purzycki: I think the only barrier to the success of this effort is a lack of commitment. That’s all. I’m confident that with requisite commitment this is going to work. I believe in my heart.
Pierce: Our issues are a little different. We have public projects, infrastructure, streets, curbs, sidewalks that we want to install. It’s just trying to find the funds, attracting the private investment into the communities, because it’s not easy to get people to invest money in a downtown like Millford.
Purzycki: No question, will and commitment of the community to realize that the effort needs to be made. And that the effort can be made. And that the strategies that comes from purpose-built can be successful. And what that will and commitment needs to lead to is the funding that is necessary to buy, not only the capital facilities, but more importantly the support to build up the human capital. What really will be needed here is ongoing support from all levels of government. Something from state government, similar to what was done on the Riverfront. It was multiple years of substantial funding coming in because that’s the level of effort that’s going to be necessary to be sustainable and be successful here.
Kowalczyk: For me it’s in the realm of jobs and when I think about jobs, I’m talking about family wage jobs. I have stories like Mayor has. I have walked in West Center City and this woman comes up to me and she says, hey, do you know of any apartments because I just took out a second job. I’m a forklifter and I now make too much money for subsidized housing. I was kicked out and I have three kids. But I’m trying to do the right thing for me and my family. So what do I do? I think the piece that it’s critical there, it’s to creating very tight meaningful partnership between businesses and understanding what their needs are. And not only for today, but where are they going next. I spent many years in banking, we no longer use humans to do fraud prevention. We use bots. In this case, the job that pays you well, it’s the one that teaches you how to code in Python. Because all that is coded in Python. So we have to think about what are those jobs that are careers, not just entry level jobs. Where are they going to be 5-10 years from now. And then backtrack it and train the folks, starting with schools, into those careers. And that creates a pathway for them. Not only for the employment today but for actual long term career. The car, the house, whatever they would like they want to create, they can do it as a career, not just as a starting job.
Herring: Three things. Patience, urgency, and then education. And not education in the traditional terms. So when I say patience, that this is a long-term project and we talked about how long the Riverfront’s taken. We’ve seen what’s happened in Atlanta and the East Lake model down there, the first purpose-built community. They’re 23 years into it, and they’re still working. The East Lake Foundation didn’t stop and say, all right, you guys are good. No, they’re continuing to work. So I understand that you have patience, but also there’s a certain level of urgency. People are living day to day in conditions that aren’t conducive to having prosperity in their lives. So we have to do whatever we can every single day to make sure we just give people hope and opportunity.
And then when I talk about education to understand why people are in this community. And the people that are in this community are not here because their fathers and grandfathers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers chose to be here, They were forced to be here. This was an all-white community in the ’50s and ’60s. And what you had in America was known as white flight. Whites had the ability to purchase homes in Greenville and Hockessin and build wealth within their family and blacks didn’t. You had blacks come into the neighborhood and we — folks that look like myself — have lived in poverty for decades and decades and decades, not because they want to, because this was kind of the hand that they were dealt. So, that’s where the urgency comes into play with me.
Purzycki: I think commitment is important. Logan talked about the public being engaged. So if this community hasn’t bought in, this won’t work. But beyond the community buying in, the community has to trust. There has to be a trust that the folks who are impacted believe that there is goodwill coming on the other side. Because they have been treated badly so many times for so many years. I will tell you, as a mayor that doesn’t look like everybody I represent, there is a big trust factor that you’ve got to build. And it’s just a long-term proposition. I remember the first time Logan was up there, he’s like a piñata in that first meeting. Because they just didn’t believe what was being sold to them. Even though Logan was up there as the face of this organization. Now clearly it’s getting better. But I see this as being an opportunity for us to show folks in the city that something great can come out of working together. Frankly, if it works, we could just pick it up and move it to another part of the city.
There are people sitting around the table with corporate backgrounds. Does the community have the patience for a process that lasts as long as the Riverfront or Market Street projects, both of which took more than 20 years?
Purzycki: We’re going to see things happen in the next couple years.
Herring: We’re going to see change and we’re talking about 600 homes. I’m talking about the completion of at least the physical transformation, or the majority of physical translation, could take 15 to 20 if not more, depending on the funding model. Particularly with the 9%, the low-income housing tax credits, which is a whole another conversation.
So what has to happen in a relatively short period of time that will reinforce the trust?
Purzycki: Success breeds success. Everybody’s insistent on using Riverfront as an example here. The first time we built something great, they just wanted to throw money at us. Until you got something, until the Chase Center was built. Nobody believed that would work. Nobody believed how beautiful Riverwalk could be. Nobody believed that Harry’s would get down there and open up. [Xavier Teixido] said, “I’m a pioneer. I just don’t believe it’s going to work down there. You got to really induce us.” We induced it. He did $5.3 million his first year. Then everybody else came in. You just need some wins. If we can get 100-200 houses built around here, it will start to change the way people think about the community. And this center gets improved. And the Warehouse gets built. All of a sudden everybody will have confidence that this can work. This is a four to five-year timeline where you’re going to start to see real improvement. I think success begets success.
Herring: Here at REACH Riverside we don’t celebrate our successes enough. We constantly get these wins and we’re on to the next thing. All right, we got houses to build next spring. And then we got this. Take a step back three years ago when Kingswood was about to close. Now you come here and look how vibrant it is, at the remodeling and the renovations that are done. Just the fact that the people are here around this table. Then you look at what we’ve accomplished with the Warehouse, $3 million in renovations going to a building that was built in 1991. That was donated to us by Capital One to serve the teens in this That was donated to us by Capital One to serve the teens in this city, of which we have 130 interested partners. Then you look at what we’ve done with REACH Riverside. We’re doing the first new construction on this land since the ’50s — 74 units will break ground in the spring of 2020. So, we’re getting wins, that’s happening. And that’s why I said, we have a problem here at REACH Riverside because we’re always like, what’s next? We get a million-dollar donation, all right, what’s happening tomorrow. But that’s the urgency. But we have to exercise that patience. And we’re accomplishing things. And we’re going to continue to accomplish things. But we’re always looking about what’s next, and next is the next 20 years.
Kowalczyk: What I’m hearing from business founders is that they are looking for longer term, strategic, meaningful contributions. Anyone from Du Pont, Bank of America, and Capital One — all of the big ones here in town — they’re challenging us leaders and the non-for-profit world to collaborate. So, Van is actually part of a three-part consortium that JP Morgan Chase requested, looking for much bigger scope about how we’re going to address capacity-building for most of the neighborhoods in the city. So, there is an opening, there is a door for longer term investments. And when we celebrate the wins, there will be more investment coming in, I’m pretty sure.
Is it a mistake to not be publicly celebrating the successes and helping to build that underlying confidence?
McDowell: Well, building up our communications capacity will help there. We’re not nearly as good as we expect to be soon. So, we’ll do a better job. But we hold press conferences from time to time. And we’ll have ribbon cuttings and we announce when Christiana Care gives us $1 million and we announce when we win the low-income housing tax credits, which are worth $10 million. I mean those things have been announced. Could we do it better? Probably. But every Monday at noon we hold one-hour luncheon briefings. Well, we’ve had 160 people through here just in the last three months. A huge part of what has to happen is the education of the public. You can’t really understand it completely until you see the whole thing.
Herring: I think it’s important that you celebrate the successes. I think you’ve got to let folks know what’s going on. The mayor said it, success breeds more success. People see things happening, it gives other people motivation to do things.
Councilwoman, how do your constituents feel? Are they feeling movement, do you think?
Oliver: I agree that it’s a trust issue because they’re scared. They’ve heard of this project for years and it never took place. And some of them are saying, it’s not going to take place. Is it going to take place? What’s going on? But most of them are very engaged. They came to the last meeting — 30 people to come out at 5:30 is excellent. They’re engaged. They’re even signed up for … the Council president has them signed up for the Stepping Stones Community Federal Credit Union. So, they’re starting to catch on that this is a real movement.
Aaron, how about from your parents and your staff?
Bass: They’re still learning more about the project. I think they are excited about the opportunity. We need to make sure that we can see the fruits of it.
You’ve told me before that you’re starting to see more of your faculty and your staff bring in their own children. Is that an indicator for you of that level of confidence?
Bass: I think so. My son is a student at EastSide Charter School right now. That trust, not just the work that they’re doing, but also that they want to have their own children there. That means a lot. And so, we want to see more and more of our families, of our staff bringing their children in. We want to see more of our community coming in. Because it also provides different opportunities for our children.
How are you taking safety and social determinants of health into consideration in the overall redevelopment plans?
Herring: Everything we do is social determinants of health. It’s the housing stock, it’s the community, it’s the safety, it’s what you eat, the conditions in the neighborhood. That’s why Christiana Care contributed $1 million and continues to be a committed partner in this work. Because they understand that the more we invest in the community now, the less we are going to see people using the emergency rooms as a hotel. So that’s critical. That’s why we have a community health coordinator. That’s vital to this work.
[In the] communities we come from, we don’t see the doctor too often, but most of the times we don’t have the appropriate health care. We’re either underinsured or uninsured. I’m going to tell you — black men don’t like going to the doctor. I know most men don’t, but definitely black men don’t like going to the doctor. It’s just something we get skittish about. I only started going because my wife made me. We have a really good health plan here at REACH Riverside because we know that if we have to help the community and educate them about the importance of health care and taking care of themselves then we have to do that as well. So yeah, preaching to the choir.
Purzycki: That just underscores the complexity of dealing with uplifting the community.
Bass: In my visits to Atlanta to see what they’ve done down there in Eastlake and Charles Drew Charter School, I remember Carol Naughton saying that when they started out with their charter schools, the level of obesity of the students in the classroom was just very high. I see a lot of that at EastSide Charter. Now, when you go visit the Charles Drew Charter School in Atlanta, you do not see obese kids. It’s because the kids and their families over the last 15 years have learned a different way of life. These are not different kids. It is still a 60%, 65% low-income community. When you look at them, they look exactly like the kids I see at EastSide Charter every day. It’s not a gentrified population. It is that population that just learned a different way of living their lives.
Have you considered a gated community? The mayor mentioned shootings at each other.
Purzycki: There’s just no way to do it. You know what’s funny, we can do other things that are really going to help. We’re doing things like putting LED lights all over the city, which is really going to brighten the neighborhoods. We’re trying to get rid of those little dark corners where so much of this stuff happens. I couldn’t even imagine under the circumstances where you’d ever put up a gate and say, “Only our folks come in here.” You’re in the city. The great thing about cities is that everybody’s in this together, good and bad, and all in between. We’re all in this together.
Herring: I’ve heard this question before. It was quickly dismissed. Actually, I’ve heard existing residents say they would like a gated community. I think it’s the exact opposite of what we want. I mean, Trolley Square is not gated. Where the mayor lives isn’t gated and they don’t have the problems that are prevalent to neighborhoods like this. We want this entire city of Wilmington to be inclusive where you feel comfortable not only in your neighborhood but any other neighborhood. It’s a small group of people that are really giving Wilmington a bad name.
What’s the pitch to potential investors, whether that’s financial institutions that might put a branch here, nonprofits that might operate here or come down here, businesses that are considering relocation, or even organizations that are thinking about investing?
Herring: The pitch for me is that right now you’re sitting in one of the most expensive neighborhoods for the city in the state. This could easily be transformed to one of the neighborhoods that really turn around the economics. The governor always says as the city of Wilmington goes, the state of Delaware goes. I truly believe as the neighborhood of Riverside goes, the city of Wilmington will go, and then the state will go. I would say there are plenty of corporations, foundations and private donors that already understand the return on this investment and what it will yield for this economy. If you don’t believe me, talk to Christiana Care, talk to CSC, talk to your Longwood and Welfare Foundations, talk to your Capital One that donated over a $3 million building, and ask them. Go talk to the people that are your peers and try to understand why they contributed or why they invested in this cause, in this neighborhood.
McDowell: I think from the business community on the economic argument, and thinking about the legal community specifically if the law firms cannot attract talented young lawyers to come to work for them because the city is not an appealing place to live, then they’re going to have a significant problem. That applies across the board, I think, for all businesses in town. The whole community needs to be thriving. If you’ve got large areas of the city that are struggling that’s a problem. From a purely economic point of view, people should react to that. It certainly should strike a chord with their social conscience. When you just look at the situation, it’s not right.
Kowalczyk: The pitch is that there is the economic driver in this area. I think for a lot of businesses what’s also very appealing about it is that it’s a blueprint. There is a plan, there’s a strategy, and there are cases in other communities around the country that that blueprint has worked. With the right level of commitment and focus it will work here as well.
Hampton: It’s a gateway into the city, access to the port. Just from that standpoint, there are a lot of good reasons why businesses would want to be here. When we get those 600 houses, we’re going to have people to go and shop at the retail and the restaurants, and use the shuttle that’s going to hopefully come along Governor Printz Boulevard.
Purzycki: If this works the way we believe it’s going to work, it tells you what kind of a city we are. It tells you where you put your priorities. It tells you that we’re a city that came together and did something that is difficult to do in community after community. I think it’s an essential part of your story.
Is it a chicken or the egg though? I mean, do you need someone that just makes a leap of faith – a grocery store or somebody like that that just says, “I believe.” Or do you need more infrastructure behind it before that can happen?
Purzycki: First of all, let me tell you about infrastructure. Governor Printz is a beautiful road to start working off. It’s not like it’s some artery that needs millions of millions worth of work, so it’s a great place to start. We can get rid of some of the more bloodied commercial things over there and I think it would begin to show extremely well. If our city agencies start working on the adjacent neighborhood and trying to lift up some of them, I think it’s going to be a very, very attractive place.
Rob, how are you guys selling Milford?
Pierce: We’ve partnering with the state heavily incentivized to try to attract development in our downtown area, both commercially and residentially. We’re in the downtown development district program where investors get up to 20% cash back for their hard cost investments. We waive permit fees, impact fees, things that sometimes are a burden to help reduce the risk for the investors to put money into our downtown. We’re seeing some growth. We have BayHealth that just built a new hospital in the southeast side of town. We’re seeing people moving in from out of the area, retirees with expendable income. When we’re trying to attract businesses, we make sure we kind of inform the investors of that. We’re just trying to market our town, sell our downtown, and the neighborhoods around it.
Two-thirds of the group said “will and commitment” was the big barrier. Translate that into something that we can do that helps build that will and commitment. How do you build it?
Bass: At EastSide Charter School the fact that there are parents who are also staff people at the school is an example of that will and commitment. They are saying they are expecting so much out of the work that we’re doing here that their own children will be here because this is the best place for them. I think that when you have schools that are top private schools in Delaware that are also partnering with schools like EastSide and are also sending their children into Riverside to get educated over at EastSide, that speaks a lot about commitment. I think the partnerships with different groups that are willing to put their money and their time and resources where their mouth is an example of that. I think the other piece is also making sure that while we’re bringing a better menu, we need to make sure that people are able to eat, that residents, our students, and our families are taking full advantage of every opportunity.
Oliver: I think that a community has to be involved like the homeowners from 23rd Street all the way back. I think we have to bring them to the table. Since they are homeowners, let some of the other individuals who are not, who need some hope, see the homeowners who live a block away from them. Say, “Look, it can be done.” I think getting homeowners involved over here in this whole project is part of the close commitment that should be at the table and not so many outsiders. I think it needs to hit home, so they can see people who look like them, so they can have some hope and feel comfortable in that trust component that really needs to be there.
Pierce: City government. Milford’s committed to addressing the vacant buildings and blatant structures, improving housing conditions, ensuring people have quality safe housing. We’re also seeing the will of investors trying to attract investors through incentives, and the will of our city council to put our money where our mouth is in terms of foregoing all revenue on downtown investments. It’s a combination of the city putting in that work and the private investors coming in and trying to lift up the area.
McDowell: That’s a good question. Education really. I think that we need to educate the public to understand how we got to where we are. I think that’s very important. Then to understand that the strategy that’s necessary to accomplish a successful transformation. That’s what we’ve tried to accomplish with these Monday briefing sessions. Education of the public is critical.
As the chair of REACH Riverside, do you feel like you’re making the progress that you expected when you took on the job?
McDowell: Logan and I have this sort of back and forth about who has the greatest sense of urgency or who thinks we should have more patience. It took 3½ three and a half years. We had to get a new mayor elected in order to set the stage, really. Since that has happened, a lot has been accomplished. We’ve gotten $1 million into the bond bill each of the last two years. Christiana Care put up $1 million. We’ve got the low-income housing tax credits that are worth $10 million. We’ve got a huge commitment from CSC just the other day. I think we’ve done pretty good.
Hampton: I think you need to identify leaders and champions in the community who put a message forward. It can’t just come from REACH Riverside. It’s got to come from folks within the community. These are folks who have influence. If they start to believe in what’s going on, that translates to other folks.
Kowalczyk: The celebrating of successes. Mayor said success breeds success. When a few of us went on a trip to Lancaster (PA) earlier this year to ask them how they approach revitalizing downtown. They’ve been on this 15-year journey. Here’s the answer I got: Number one, clean up the streets. Number two, if you have dark streets and alleys, light them. It really makes a difference. Number three, celebrate every single success, because that really gets the investors excited. It also gets the community excited. They said there is not a small success that it’s too small to celebrate.
Herring: I just want to touch on legacy. A lot of people from Wilmington are familiar with my grandfather who was the biggest community leader that there was back in the day. I’m just trying to honor his legacy by continuing the work that he started many, many years ago. When we think about will and commitment, it’s about what can you do to leave a legacy? We think about what Governor DuPont did around bringing corporations to the state. He wasn’t thinking about, “Well what can I do within my term?” He was thinking about what he could do to better the state not just for now, but for our children, and our children’s children. I’m pretty sure that my grandfather isn’t necessarily pleased with where the city is given the work that he did decades ago. I’m trying to pick up where he left off and hopefully my son and his son won’t have to face a lot of the issues that we’re dealing with.
Purzycki: The first word I thought of when you asked the question — and maybe it sounds simple— but it’s leadership. If you don’t have someone at the top that everybody believes in, it’s not going to work because people aren’t going to support it. Charlie has been the face of this effort over here for a long time. People have great confidence in him. Logan’s been the face of Kingswood and this whole big effort up in Purpose Built. Aaron’s been the (education) leader. Of course, I feel the burden of being the mayor as well because if people don’t have confidence in me, they’re not going to be supporting the city. What really happened at the riverfront for year after year after year is we went down there and asked for money that nobody else was getting but they really believed that our leadership team could perform. That’s what you need. It’s almost a cliche, but when I tell you that leadership is the key to this whole thing, it is. It’s the key to every organizational success anywhere.
Is there one thing that our business readers can do to support the efforts of the neighborhood revitalization?
Herring: If you don’t mind, I can start that. Every Monday from 12 to 1 we have an information session, with an optional 1 to 1:30 where we give you a tour of Riverside in the Warehouse. Come on Mondays because it’s very, very difficult for us to say you can support in this way or to ask for support if you’re not fully educated about the comprehensiveness of this project. After you’ve come for an hour, it’s very eye opening on how you can contribute, at least for our effort here at REACH Riverside. It would be helpful if you could call 764-9022, or just email that you’re coming at REACHriverside.org.
Purzycki: I really think we have to educate people in the business community who are largely not members. We have to educate them about what goes in our cities, not only currently but historically. We need them to be open to this idea of education and we have to find a medium where we provide that information. Frankly, if you don’t understand what’s going on here, you can’t have a rational view of what goes in most cities.
Bass: Come visit us at EastSide Charter School and see the work that we’re doing. I think it’s also important to spread the word. We have tons of opportunities for mentorship, for speaking engagements. We’re honored and blessed to be in this community. It’s an incredible opportunity.
Oliver: Just come visit and mentor. I mean I had all kinds of mentors around me. I think that your readers, if they came out they could go to the road. Some of them come over to Stubbs or EastSide Charter and just do some mentoring. I think mentoring in a certain community always helps.
Pierce: Visit our historic downtown in Milford or come see our river walk, our park system along the Mispillion River. Reach out to the city officials to get a better feel of what the community is about. That’s basically about it. Come visit Milford.
McDowell: We need a lot of resources to deliver the services that are necessary to make the project successful. In order to be willing to do that, you have to understand what it’s all about, so come here and get educated about it. As far as hands on activity, there are great mentoring possibilities at EastSide Charter, here at Kingswood with the early learning academy. I think at the Warehouse there will be mentoring possibilities. We have eight different committees working on these various focus areas for this overall project. We welcome expertise and interest to get involved in either the redevelopment, or the education, or the health and wellness, any one of the number of focus areas. There are lots of ways that people can participate right now.
Kowalczyk: Think creatively about offering employment opportunities, not only for the adult residents here, but teen employment. We should also actively foster entrepreneurship. Just think creatively about being part of creating good jobs here and opportunities for business ownership