Bigger LIFT

Organization looks at new way for community development

By Bill Dries

The former Cadence Bank branch on Court Avenue Downtown is the new and bigger home for Community LIFT, the local intermediary with community development corporations founded by a coalition of nonprofits and the city of Memphis four years ago.

Eric Robertson, president of Community LIFT with staff, from left, Rachel Oduka, Tracy Buckley, Ashley Cash, Enesia Amanza-Martinez (top), Leni Stoeva and Tsedey Betru. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

And with the new offices comes a next step for an organization that calls into question some basic assumptions about the work of community development in Memphis.

The LIFT in the organization’s name is shorthand for Leveraging Investments for Transformation, and president Eric Robertson says after about three years in actual operation the guiding question has changed when it comes to distressed and declining communities.

“We think about why they are the way that they are. We start talking about poverty and lack of jobs and poor schools and lack of transportation options,” Robertson said. “Instead of thinking about why they are that way, we started thinking about why do they remain that way, and that’s a fundamentally different question.”

It means a change in tactics, particularly in the role of community development corporations – or CDCs – which have been around for nearly 40 years.

“I think we are applying some innovative strategies. But a lot of what we are suggesting is not necessarily new,” Robertson said. “It’s just new to Memphis. What it does represent is a paradigm shift in how we have traditionally done community development work in the city.”

Community LIFT works specifically in three areas of Memphis: Frayser, South Memphis in the Soulsville area and Binghampton, including the Broad Avenue Arts District.

That will remain the case. But Robertson and his board want to begin to address the questions and concerns that inevitably come among political leaders in particular as those areas enjoy some success. The questions and concerns revolve around why there can’t be that kind of effort in other areas of the city. And with them comes a skepticism that separates those in the communities from those with plans for the communities.

“The hope would be that the CDCs would lead that change,” said Josh Poag, co-chairman of the LIFT board and president of Poag & McEwen Lifestyle Centers. “But the problem is that while we have some really great CDCs in the city, there are some CDCs that are nonfunctional, and there are plenty of areas that don’t even have CDCs.”

Robertson said the nonprofits that can do the heavy lifting on systematic long-term neighborhood redevelopment are few and far between.

“I think we are applying some innovative strategies. But a lot of what we are suggesting is not necessarily new. It’s just new to Memphis.”

–Eric Robertson

“And of those that are operating, they are woefully under capacity to service the people that they are trying to serve. That is a fundamental problem when you say we are trying to change neighborhoods and put them in a different trajectory,” he said. “You just don’t have the boots on the ground, the capacity, the skill set, the resources necessary to do that. … Because of that, they stay the same.”

Poag also says the efforts have to be more organic, what he calls “grassroots.”

“A lot of people preach that. … There’s too many times that people come into these neighborhoods and say, ‘We’re going to raise a bunch of money,’” he said. “And they never even see anybody who gets that money or anybody gets a job from that grant. You have a lot of people in these designated neighborhoods who are skeptical about outsiders. So many people have talked about it over the past generations.”

Also important is a start toward scaling down to the neighborhood level the incentives that are now used for larger economic development projects like a new plant or factory relocating to the city. The smaller scale involves grants and loans for façade improvements and other building improvements.

Robertson and Poag point to the hard-fought redevelopment effort underway in Frayser, with help from Community LIFT but also involving other Frayser-based institutions, as a model.

Community LIFT helped secure the federal funding that put together a master plan for the effort and allowed that effort to have a full-time site director in former Shelby County Commissioner and Memphis City Council member Shep Wilbun.

“It’s kind of a mini-government within the greater Memphis government,” Poag said. “It’s very organized and doing a lot of great stuff.”

But Poag said it’s important to remember it’s unique to Frayser and different from the model that is working in Binghampton.

Many institutions and individuals help to fill gaps in both places – the kind of gaps that plague other communities where supporters cite the presence of a community development corporation as a panacea.

“At the end of the day, they don’t allow communities to make it to the other side of the bridge,” Robertson said of the gaps. “There are too many holes and too many gaps in the infrastructure. That’s long, hard work. That’s work that takes a serious commitment.”