This article was originally published in the University Gazette on September 9, 2014, as “Carolina program helps revitalize NC towns.” It is republished here with permission.
They call them “wicked problems,” the complicated, long-term, seemingly impossible, hard-to-wrap-your-head-around issues for which solutions seem far away.
The team involved in the School of Government’s Development Finance Initiative (DFI) specializes in them, and they’re teaching students how to tackle them, too.
DFI partners with local governments across the state to attract the private investments they need to revitalize their communities. Community revitalization is one of those “wicked problems” said Tyler Mulligan, who teaches both public officials and graduate students about community development, finance and revitalization.
“You don’t always know from the start how you’re going to make it work, and that can be daunting,” said Mulligan.
DFI itself was borne from a perplexing problem: Local government officials often asked Mulligan to visit their towns and assist them with their communities’ needs. But, he couldn’t do it on his own.
“It’s part of my job to advise these officials and answer their calls and emails when they need me, but I couldn’t provide intensive assistance to every community, and the challenges they face require a multi-disciplinary approach,” he said. “It soon became clear that a team of professionals was needed to answer the call for assistance.”
The demand was undeniable. Downtown streets were in desperate need of revitalization, historic buildings were wearing away with neglect and prime parcels of land sat empty without a purpose in many of North Carolina’s towns.
Most of these towns have small administrative staffs and don’t employ someone with expertise in development or who has a strong familiarity with the private sector, but the School of Government does.
“I thought, what if we could build on the development expertise we already have here and deliver that to communities where it could have the most impact?” said Mulligan, who conceived DFI and now serves as the program’s faculty advisor. “Community leaders were telling us that they needed someone with technical expertise to provide intensive assistance with their community development challenges.”
In 2010, the Local Government Federal Credit Union (LGFCU) funded the creation of DFI for five years and this summer increased that support for an additional 10 years. The school promised to use that gift to create a self-sustaining program to help serve distressed communities across North Carolina.
Real clients, real challenges
To help turn this idea into practice, the school reached out to Michael Lemanski, a real estate expert who founded Greenfire Real Estate Holdings, one of the lead investment and master development firms behind the revitalization of Durham’s city center.
Lemanski immediately recognized the importance of an opportunity to serve local governments across the state.
“It’s definitely the kind of program that would have benefitted Durham,” said Lemanski. “I had to learn the hard way how difficult it is to build the trust necessary to be successful at this scale of revitalization.”
Traditionally, the public sector can be skeptical of the private sector’s motivations and interests. DFI’s assistance helps local government officials feel more confident about the process.
“We help local governments understand what it takes to attract private investment into distressed areas or buildings. DFI can analyze the financial viability of a project, identify why a developer may need public involvement, and how best to structure that involvement to maximize the public benefit while limiting the public investment,” he said. “We provide the technical assistance and trust necessary to save both parties a lot of time and help them each meet their goals much quicker,” said Lemanski.
In addition to the involvement of Lemanski and school faculty members, DFI’s team includes a senior analyst, four project managers and six graduate fellows to help communities with long-term projects. They also mentor students in a graduate level course who do similar work on smaller scale projects.
Mulligan said the fellows and the students enrolled in the course have helped expand DFI’s reach by providing necessary market research, analysis, financial modeling, community engagement and GIS mapping. Since tackling these problems requires a diverse set of skills, the students come from degree programs in business, city and regional planning, public administration and even public health and social work.
In turn, students get an experiential education with real clients facing real challenges.
“The students go into these towns to start laying the ground work for solutions, and for many of them, it is the first time they realize that their individual skills are important but not sufficient to address the community’s challenges. They see it is necessary to collaborate with people from different fields just like they will need to do after graduation,” said Mulligan.
In that short amount of time, the DFI has dispatched students and economic development professionals into 40 communities from the mountains to the coast and everywhere in between. More than 50 projects have been identified and 12 are already on track to make a real difference.
A long, rewarding road
Marcia Machado Perritt started as DFI’s first student fellow in 2012 when she was at Carolina earning masters degrees in city and regional planning and public health. She’s now one of DFI’s program mangers and splits her time between Chapel Hill and Kinston.
“Because of the multidisciplinary nature of the program, DFI staff recognize the interconnectedness of community development and community health,” she said. “There’s no simple intervention or solution.”
Perritt said the town of Kinston has a lot of needs but also a lot of promise. Kinston was once a thriving tobacco town, but many of its industries shut down, leaving the community ailing economically. Efforts to attract investors hadn’t worked, and the town continued to suffer.
DFI has two major projects there: an arts-based development initiative to create a cultural destination based on Kinston’s existing assets and another revitalizing the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard Corridor, one of the most economically distressed neighborhoods in the state. (See Perritt’s presentation to the Board of Trustees.)
“We’ve got a long road ahead, and that’s not easy for the community. You want to see immediate results, but these complex problems were created over decades and require long-range solutions,” said Perritt. “But we can already point to small gains: people and businesses are moving into the art’s and cultural district, and there’s been real money invested in the roads and streetscapes of the MLK project.”
What DFI has accomplished has been nothing short of amazing, said Mulligan. Projects are underway and in beginning stages all over the state and students are gaining experiences that prepare them for the job market.
“The feedback we have received from communities has been incredibly positive and we are honored by the trust and responsibility given to DFI through its work,” said Mulligan.
Courtney Mitchell is Associate Editor of the University Gazette.