Aloft in the stratosphere, a group of power players hatches a plan to breathe new life into a town’s barren central business district …
It sounds like a work of fiction, but it’s what happened in Greensboro, North Carolina, when a group of foundations came together to turn around downtown Greensboro’s economy.
In 1999, the group pooled their resources to create Action Greensboro, a partnership dedicated to enhancing the quality of life in the city. One year later, “they engaged a group of a hundred business leaders and took people to Chattanooga on a private plane to look at how Chattanooga was transforming their economy,” says Cecelia Thompson, current executive director of Action Greensboro. “On the way back they raised a significant amount of money to move forward around specific initiatives.”
Since then, the organization (now backed by six foundations) has played a significant leadership role in several long-term placemaking projects with investments totaling more than $62 million. They’ve helped the city to build a downtown minor league baseball stadium, convert a decommissioned library into the home of a new law school and build a $12 million downtown park.
Currently, they’re sponsoring a new performing arts center and the start of a downtown greenway. The public-private partnership project is a four-mile-long trail loop circling downtown and connecting more than a dozen neighborhoods. In late May, the Phillips Foundation gave $1.5 million for a section of the greenway (they get naming rights). By 2018, Action Greensboro and the city together will have put $30 million toward the project, and that’s made up of federal and state funds, bond money and foundation giving.
“Greensboro is somewhat fortunate to have Greensboro-focused foundations that are the size and scale that they are,” says Michael Lemanski, director of the Development Finance Initiative at the University of North Carolina School of Government. “Most communities don’t have the size of the foundations that have the ability to make the sizable gifts that are occurring in Greensboro.”
He says that two of the drawbacks of any community relying so heavily on foundation money include potential instability of income from year to year and spending decisions with less public accountability.
There’s also the added challenge of coordinating so many different foundations — all of whom might have different priorities and visions for the city.
“I think there’s a culture of philanthropy here in Greensboro,” says Thompson. “It’s almost peer pressure to join Action Greensboro and work collaboratively. Primarily because of the amount we have gotten done in the last 15 years.” The staff meets with reps from the foundations every couple of weeks.
Thompson says that Action Greensboro “holds itself very accountable” to public input on their projects. As an example, she mentions that Greensboro residents were invited to participate in the selection process for an artist to contribute work for one of the four corners of the greenway. The winner, Minneapolis artist Randy Walker, visited the town last week to hear community input on his designs.
Lemanski says that one of the keys to downtown revitalization is taking a comprehensive, long-term approach — something he’s applied in communities across North Carolina in the past, as a real estate developer and a consultant with the Development Finance Initiative. “It creates an opportunity investment in the near term, but also assures that the larger community is focused on the bigger picture of where everything is heading. … That’s when people really start to get excited.”
Thompson says that Action Greensboro is uniquely able to do that work as a group of foundations. Even though there’s occasionally been friction about direction and priorities, that doesn’t derail the focus. “The foundations have been together 15 years, and they sort of function as a family, in my perspective,” explains Thompson. “It’s not every day that everyone agrees on everything, but we tend to work things out.”
“The downtown greenway is a really excellent example of a very large public-private partnership in downtown,” she continues. “There is always struggle. It’s a big project to work towards. But we’re getting it done.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.