Does Crozet Need a Community Development Corporation?

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Nate Cunningham
Nate Cunningham

Developer Frank Stoner, who currently controls by contract (but does not yet own) the former Barnes Lumber property in downtown Crozet, proposed to the Crozet Community Advisory Council in August that Crozet should form a Community Development Corporation to help attract new businesses to the town.

Stoner and White Hall District Supervisor Ann Mallek jointly hostd a meeting at the Field School October 2 to introduce Crozetians to what a CDC is. Their joint sponsorship of the meeting was noticed by local citizens. Mallek will presumably be voting at some date on Stoner’s plan for developing the lumberyard and she appeared to be showing her support for Stoner’s plan, which was rejected by the Albemarle Planning Commission in July.

“This is not a standard CCAC meeting,” observed CCAC chair Meg Holden. “Ann Mallek and Frank Stoner spearheaded this.” About 45 attended the meeting, including several CCAC members.

Stoner arranged for a former business associate of his, Nate Cunningham, who has experience with a CDC in Pittsburgh, East Liberty Development, Inc., to make the presentation.

“I have a unique perspective,” said Cunningham. “I’ve worked on the non-profit and on the profit side of a community development corporation in a distressed neighborhood.” He no longer works for ELDI.

Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, a section of downtown Pittsburgh, has about 8,000 residents. At the birth of the 20th century it was bustling and prosperous, indeed it was the wealthiest neighborhood in the country, Cunningham said.

But its grandeur decayed in the post-World War II suburbanization of America and in the 1960s one million square feet of buildings in East Liberty were flattened in the name of urban renewal.

“Your community should not be the implementers of the vision,” Cunningham said. “The community is the supervisor of the vision. They are the stewards of the master plan.”

Cunningham said realizing a vision requires planning, advocacy, facilitation and investment. “You have to have a plan that’s marketable,” he said. Essentially, one has to understand what population densities are necessary attract certain types of development.

Mallek offered that one thing a CDC could accomplish is “cross-testing the [Crozet Master] plan against the market. We order steps in the plan to get them done.”

The essential purpose of a CDC is to secure grant funds from government agencies, such as affordable housing grants, and then loan that money to private developers, Cunningham explained. He called a CDC “a conduit” and referred to developers as “trusted partners.” CDCs are typically associated with blighted urban areas where private investors are not attracted.

What CDCs in greater Pittsburgh did to get started, Cunningham said, was attract grants, often multi-year grants, from a private foundation in the city to give money for two positions in the corporation and for those persons to hire consultants who in turn pursue federal grants. “Don’t staff up,” he advised.

Cunningham said that when ELDI has tried to accomplish projects on its own, “it has ended up being nearly existential for us.” After 30 years on the scene, the ELDI built up “a reputation and authority based on performance,” said Cunningham. But there are failed CDCs “all over Pittsburgh,” he acknowledged.

“Having a CDC is having a group that is always there to ensure the community’s vision is being carried out,” said Cunningham.

CCAC members looked at each other as if to say, “Isn’t that our job?”

“A CDC gives a developer somebody to operate with to represent the community,” Cunningham said.

The 15-member CCAC, a cross-section of Crozet citizens appointed by the county Supervisors, has historically served in that role, too, as Stoner knows from his appearances before the council.

“My best advice is go to an expert and figure out if you have the population you need.”

CCAC member Leslie Byrnes asked if CDCs are ever created for rural areas.

“This investment strategy is applicable irrespective of the goals of the community,” Cunningham answered.

“Our area is not a good comparison to Pittsburgh,” observed Richard Pleasants, who is considering trackside locations in Ivy and Crozet for a new wind turbine part factory. “It’s overkill for a community like this. It didn’t attract me. Private investment will come to Crozet.”

CCAC member Kim Connelly asked for advice on how to attract start-up grants to create a CDC.

“This may seem sideways,” answered Cunningham, “Start with the priority that has the most passion in the community. That’s what will attract state and federal grants.”

“Is there something that says what the key steps are?” followed up CCAC chair Meg Holden.

“There’s so much capital in real estate that it’s easy to get a slice for the community,” he said. “Political campaign contributions can make things happen. CDCs accelerate the success of private developers.”

“We have a vision and a plan. It’s won national awards,” said Tom Loach, the planning commissioner for White Hall District. “Population-wise we are near build-out with what we have already approved. Would a CDC overshadow the CCAC in leading growth? A CDC exists to attract growth. It’s a cannon to kill a fly.”

“You have a lot of the elements already,” agreed Cunningham. “A CDC is a way to launder grant money. CDC staff members focus full time on how to implement the plan.”

“Can the county go after these grants?” asked Connelly.

County economic development facilitator Susan Stimart was in the audience and said, “Yes, we can. And we can pass them on to private developers.”

“I don’t want to see another organization,” said Loach. “We have the [new] library today because of plans we made in 1993 and we stuck to.” He suggested that because a CDC could have money to give out, it would have more leverage in implementation outcomes than the CCAC’s judgments would.

“What I see is interesting,” said Mallek. “We haven’t had the knowledge of where to go. “There is grant-receiving ability at the county,” she agreed.

“I don’t in any way want to supercede the community,” said Cunningham. “Not supercede, but strengthen. Get a financial stake in what’s happening.” He suggested that Crozet hire consultants who would do local market testing.

“How do you get the plan you can implement?” asked Stoner.

“There has to be a level of trust,” said Cunningham. “The only way to have trust is to share the same vision. If you don’t share a vision, don’t partner.

“The best way to get collaboration [from a private developer] is to be in the financial partnership,” Cunningham said. “This tool has been successful for us.”

“We don’t need more growth in Crozet,” said Russell Gough.

“The feds have the money and we have to get it,” rejoined Cunningham.

“It comes with strings,” Gough replied.

“Oh, yeah!” said Cunningham.

 

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