The Shop Around the Corner

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Posted Date : November 26, 2013

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I attended the “What is place-based philanthropy?” site visit, and it got me thinking about the role of private business in community foundation projects. There are fruitful relationships and productive roles we could do more to develop, and San Diego has some interesting models.

We visited “urban village” development projects run by Price Charities (in City Heights) and by the Jacobs Foundation (in Market Creek). These are unusual roles for foundations to play; they’re acting as real estate developers, and their offices are located in the neighborhoods they’re rebuilding. They engage residents to design the urban spaces, including retail, services, and community centers. And they work with those vendors to decide who will be located where.

In City Heights, Price pursued a “compass” strategy, starting with a retail plaza hub and developing housing in targeted areas north, south, east, and west of the hub. The hope was that for-profit developers would “fill in” the space between the compass points and the hub. But response so far has been slow, because Price is looking for developers to be engaged at least somewhat in the social mission of the work, and many developers want to be absentee landlords and not take a hands-on role. Overcoming that disconnect will be a challenge as the project evolves.

In the Village at Market Creek, Jacobs created a retail plaza. They asked residents what they wanted. Residents observed there had not been a new grocery store in the neighborhood since the fifties. Jacobs bid out to grocery chains like Ralph’s, with little initial response. Finally, a lesser-known national chain called Food 4 Less stepped up. It’s now the most successful location of that chain in the region.

I came away wanting to know more about the “program officer equivalent” in other sectors - who within companies decides the siting of retail locations? Bank loan officers make similar decisions at a smaller scale, evaluating opportunities and rendering judgments about resources people want. Are these people on the radar screens of community foundations? Shouldn’t they be fundamental partners in community development projects.

Such engagement can and should involve residents, and the results can be surprising for those of us steeped in nonprofit culture. In the Village at Market Creek, the developers from Jacobs set a goal of one-third local businesses in the retail plaza. They thought a local coffee chain could be a good option, with more affordable prices. Respondents said “nope, we want Starbucks like people downtown have.” Aspiration is an important part of community development, and a sense of fairness - “we want what everyone wants.” Familiar retail brand names can powerfully symbolize these ambitions. In both communities, Walmart has been a controversial potential presence for similar reasons. And that Starbucks location? It’s thriving.

It’s worth questioning our assumptions about the kinds of value different types of private businesses provide, and how they might be partners in community development.

How do you partner with private business in your community foundation? What new approaches have you been trying or might you try?

Join in the conversation by commenting below, or by tweeting @COF_ #COF13.

Chris Cardona is Director of Philanthropy for TCC Group.

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