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Perspectives: 2nd Edition

Perspectives | 2nd Edition

Written by Carl Mellor

In my last essay, I discussed community development in a general context and the importance of avoiding quick fixes or development strategies that yield little return. Certainly, public subsidies for athletic stadiums or arenas would top any list of measures with a minimum benefit. Throughout the USA, owners of professional sports teams, most of them extremely wealthy individuals, have demanded that taxpayers fund a new facility.

Again and again, city or county governments have acceded to those demands, creating a situation in which public funds pay for an arena owned by a private company. A small number of jobs is preserved, and the process is justified on the basis that a city needs a professional baseball or football team to be a first-class city. The incentives are extensive, and the economic gains modest.

It’s now time to turn to a different notion of community development, one based on the idea that communities need to evaluate their own strengths and weakness, their own needs. Put simply, there’s no single strategy for development; every locality is different.

With that principle in mind, let’s talk about how several Rust Belt communities have addressed economic concerns. Back in 1980, Lowell, Massachusetts was considered a poster child for urban decay. Closing of mills and factories devastated its economic well-being.

Eventually, Lowell reinvented itself with cultural institutions and a revitalized downtown. A national historic park was established, and the Bott Cotton Mills Museum and the American Textile History Museum opened their doors. Dozens of condos were built in the downtown area. A summer series of rock and blues concert draws thousands of people to Lowell.

In the end, the changes didn’t resolve every socio-economic problem. Lowell still has significant poverty issues. Nonetheless, the city has a far healthier economy than 35 years ago.

Gary, Indiana, meanwhile, has dealt with a declining population, with houses abandoned, left without repairs, ultimately demolished. That’s hardly a positive trend. Yet, Gary has promoted use of open spaces for vegetable gardens, urban farming and tree planting. There’s also an emphasis on salvaging building materials generated by demolition work.

Demolition, it should be noted, is an end-game decision, not a preferred course of action. It’s far better to rehab a building for different uses. At 214 N. State St. in Syracuse, the former St. John the Evangelist’s Church was converted first into a glass studio and then into a home for the Samaritan Center, the current occupant. In other cities, churches have found new life as cultural centers.

Elsewhere, York, Pennsylvania has an artists’ homestead program providing a loan of $5,000 for down payment on purchase of a house. If the artist stays in a house for five years, the loan is forgiven. The program has impacted York’s landscape, as artists have created murals and other forms of public art.

Several cities have seen workers’ cooperatives emerge and grow nicely. In Cleveland, for example, the Evergreen organization operates a group of interconnected cooperatives including an industrial laundry, a solar project, and a green growers initiative. Evergreen focuses on removing barriers to employment for ex-offenders and other individuals who find it difficult to find a job.

Madison, Wisconsin has several cooperatives such as the Nature’s Bounty Cooperative and a cooperative for interpreters. Moreover, the city government has a specific commitment to cooperatives as demonstrated by a line item for cooperative development in the municipal budget.

In various cities, access to capital is a major problem, with small businesses often finding it difficult to receive loans. Community development credit unions fill in some of the gaps and have a presence across the nation. Indeed, it’s estimated that these credit unions have roughly $60 billion in assets.

In my next essay, I will focus on the role played by such credit unions, including our own Cooperative Federal Credit Union. We have been a community development credit union for a long time.

Read more blogs in this series.