Improving the Community Development System in the St. Louis Region

Last week at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Professor Todd Swanstrom and Karl Guenther presented the findings of a new report, Creating Whole Communities: Enhancing the Capacity of Community Development Nonprofits in the St. Louis Region” (available at:  http://pprc.umsl.edu/data/EnhancingCapacity2011.pdf).  Based on a survey of 34 community development corporations (CDCs) in the St. Louis region, the report examines the strengths of these grassroots organizations, as well as the challenges they face working in disadvantaged neighborhoods during an economic downturn and declining government support.

Sponsored by the Community Partnership Project at UMSL, a panel discussion followed the report.  The panel was composed of Justine Craig-Meyer of Lemay Housing Partnership, Kimberly McKinney of Habitat for Humanity St. Louis, and Paul Brophy, a national community development expert. The discussion centered not just on the CDCs but on the state of the broader community development system in the St. Louis region, including governments, foundations, banks, and corporations.

Panelists identified three issues facing the community development system in St. Louis:

1)      Many disadvantaged communities, especially in the suburbs, have no CDCs;

2)      Many CDCs have capacity and scale issues;

3)      Place-based community development, which affects the entire region, is not well integrated into regional economic development efforts.

The map below shops where the headquarters of the organizations surveyed are located.  Of the 34 CDCs surveyed, 23 work only in the City of St. Louis.  Even though more poor people now live in suburban St. Louis County than in the City, only seven CDCs operate in the County, and five of those serve both the City and the County.  Only one CDC is located in St. Charles County and three in Illinois.  The challenge facing outlying counties is to develop new CDCs or increase the organizational reach of existing CDCs to cover more communities.

The second issue, organizations having enough capacity and scale, is directly related to the ability of these place-based organizations to affect significant change in their communities. In the City of St. Louis, many CDCs are organized by ward.  The 28 wards in the City now have populations less than 12,000, a scale that is too small to address many issues, such as economic development.  (Community development efforts in the County are also fragmented by the 91 municipalities.)  Ward boundaries often coincide with major thoroughfares, for example, frustrating retail revitalization efforts.

Not only are CDCs small in geographical scale but they are also small in size, with 41 percent of the sample having two or fewer employees.  The limited capacity of CDCs necessitates either growth or merger of existing CDCs or more collaboration among them. Growing the capacity of these organizations to implement projects at the scale needed is a significant challenge.  Unlike many metropolitan areas, St. Louis does not have a large community foundation that invests over the long run in community development and national community foundations like LISC and Enterprise, do not work in St. Louis.

The third issue centers around the value of CDCs to the region.  Paul Brophy, former president of the Enterprise Foundation and now an independent consultant working in metropolitan areas across the country, stressed the need to understand that regional economic growth depends on a strong community development system.   Increasingly, knowledge workers are free to locate anywhere and they are looking for exciting places with urban amenities such as pedestrian friendly neighborhoods with vibrant public spaces and night life, including access to bike paths and public transit.   If St. Louis does not have such places, the “creative class” will go to other cities.

 It is worthwhile noting that St. Louis is showing life here.  According to a study by CEOs for Cities, St. Louis City ranked #1 in the growth of young people (25-34) with college degrees.   But there is much more we can do, including transit-oriented development (TOD) around MetroLink stations.

Brophy also stressed the need for a strong community development system to prevent areas of concentrated poverty from festering and pulling down the entire region.   In areas of weak housing demand and population loss, community development requires doing more than building more housing.  Swanstrom and Guenther stressed that CDCs across the region are doing much more than housing. (The  chart below shows the varied activities of CDCs in the region).

Across the region, CDCs are listening to the needs of their communities to craft strategies to stabilize and revitalize disadvantaged places.  These strategies vary from starting a cookie company that employs neighborhood youth (Angel-Baked Cookies) to the revitalization of neighborhood retail (The Grove on Manchester) to a comprehensive initiative partnering with an entire school district (Beyond Housing’s 24:1 Initiative).  There is no substitute for having civic organizations that understand local conditions and can attain buy-in from local stakeholders for a revitalization plan.   CDCs also have the ability to leverage public and private funds with volunteers as they engage residents in returning vitality and opportunity to their neighborhoods.

Leaders in the region representing organizations like Civic Progress, RCGA, foundations, banks, and local governments need to step to the plate to strengthen the community development system.  A stronger community development system would lead to smarter growth for the region, providing affordable housing for the workforce in job-rich suburbs and helping to stop the depopulation of areas in central cities and inner-ring suburbs where expensive infrastructure is already in place.  The hope of many of those at the UMSL forum was that the event would help jump-start a conversation about how to improve community development for the entire region.

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