For impoverished Memphis neighborhoods, finances specifically set aside for revitalization might as well have been locked up in Fort Knox, such was the convoluted method in which local government for years set aside those funds. But Eric Robertson has a plan.
Robertson is the CEO of Community LIFT, an organization dedicated to reviving disinvested neighborhoods in Memphis. Founded in 2010, LIFT spawned from the Greater Memphis Neighborhoods Plan, an initiative that partnered with the Community Development Council of Greater Memphis, now Building Memphis. Tackling the issues facing Memphis was a daunting task, and Robertson needed to find others who were well-versed in different sectors of the city.
“We were looking for people in banking, within community development, then recruited someone from the Crime Commission,” says Robertson. “And then we gathered a number of community development corporation executive directors to represent grassroots leadership.”
Since LIFT was a brand-new organization, recognizable board members brought credibility to the fledgling initiative. Names such as Bob Fockler, Archie Willis, Josh Poag, and Herman Strickland all ensured a somewhat smooth start to life. In 2010, Robertson had a two-year budget of $150,000. To demonstrate its early potential, LIFT invested in Broad Avenue early on with contributions to businesses like Wiseacre and Euro Imports. Since then, Community LIFT has raised around $10 million to serve Frayser, Binghampton, Highland Heights, Whitehaven, and South Memphis.
Community LIFT has seen continuous growth, due to early grants from ArtPlace America to do work in the Soulsville Community. What really proved the catalyst for LIFT’s boom, however, was its founding of an affiliate organization called River City Capital Investment Corp. River City shares a staff with Community LIFT, and through the corporation conducts economic development activities based around lending.
“We give loans to borrowers in targeted neighborhoods, who couldn’t access capital from traditional banks,” says Robertson, “and who want to access capital from nontraditional sources without astronomical interest rates.”
Working in unison, LIFT and River City provided an intermediary to combine local resources and be more appealing to national funding due to the business community, corporate and banking community, and local government all able to coordinate better and funnel their available resources to organizations that work on the ground. Even with Robertson able to group together the multiple sectors needed to enact change, LIFT needed to examine the problem in a new light.
After years of asking what were the challenges facing communities in Shelby County, Robertson thought that a different approach was required.
“Rather than asking the same old questions,” he says, “I thought, why haven’t we as a city seen one of our disinvested neighborhoods revitalized? What’s preventing that from happening, and why hasn’t that happened in the last 40 years or so?” That prompted a new line of inquiry into systems, structures, and policies.
Robertson returned to the communities he’d been working with and saw that organizations were severely understaffed and lacked the capacity to deliver change. He cites one example of a CDC with a staff of two and a miniscule budget. Furthermore, not every neighborhood has such an organization, and those that do usually focus on youth.
“This is part of the capacity issue,” says Robertson. “The people, organizations, and people closest to the ground who know and understand the communities have the least amount of resources to create change.”
The quickest way to impact these issues, decided Robertson, was to pursue policy change at government level. Compared to other places, he says Memphis doesn’t have as many pro-neighborhood policies. In other cities, he cites what is called a Housing Trust Fund, which takes a few cents off water and gas fees, and that money goes into a pool of up to $10 million every year aimed at neighborhood revitalization.
“Until we rethink some of our policy decisions across sectors, with very intentional efforts around what I call pro-neighborhood, pro-inclusive growth strategies, we’re going to lack the resources and capacity to deliver change,” he says. “That means some 20 percent of our population will always be hovering around the poverty line.”
Robertson went to the city to propose two new funds. The Community Development Corporation Capacity Fund raises money to provide grants to community development corporations. The goal is to increase capacity and results for these neighborhood organizations, which in turns makes them more attractive for national funding.
“The fact that foundations, the city, and others invest in that fund, we see that as a policy win,” he says. “They’ve made a decision to say, ‘We’re going to place value in this policy decision with our foundation because we believe in its theory of change.’”
The Memphis Empowerment Fund is a smaller grant, which provides money for residents who want to create change in their own community. They aren’t required to be a 501(c)3, or even be part of a neighborhood association, but must show how they are working with other nonprofits or groups to accomplish their projects.
“We wanted to recognize people we had seen who were already doing these projects, but out of their own pockets,” says Robertson, “to say ‘we see you, we honor you, we recognize you in terms of the work you’re doing.’”
“We are forging these relationships, because they have to demonstrate how they’re working with other nonprofits,” he continues. “We are building the capacity of CDCs, which are nonprofits that by definition are organizations who wake up every day thinking about the transformation of a particular community, and we can increase their ability to work at a higher level and then team them with residents. Then everyone can participate and help drive change. Because they are all engaged, you lessen apathy. You then connect that to businesses that are growing and creating jobs and economic opportunity.”
In the two years since it has been implemented, LIFT has given around $520,000 to the CDC Fund and around $110,000 in grants to 41 residents across 25 neighborhoods. With the funds firmly entrenched, LIFT looked at programs like the Community Builder Pilot embraced by EDGE and determined how to apply it to distressed communities. Robertson commissioned the Search for Economic Development Equity report, which looks at various economic development agencies in Memphis, Detroit, St. Louis, and Atlanta
“This was trying to expand the conversation Memphis was having about how it should be more aggressive with economic development,” says Robertson. “We want to be aggressive, but the definition of what economic development is should be much broader than the recruitment of companies. It should be inclusive of how we grow small and mid-size existing businesses and how we revitalize commercial corridors and industrial corridors.”
Housing and community development are crucial to Robertson’s vision for revitalizing the economic sector. As companies grow and Memphis attracts new ones, then those employees need somewhere to live. The city also needs to factor in what to do with transportation. Robertson, however, believes that there simply isn’t enough staff at local agencies to handle all of these issues. Atlanta’s development agency, Invest Atlanta, at 55 employees, has a much larger staff than EDGE. St. Louis, of comparable size to Memphis, has 70 staff members.
To move forward, Robertson says “courageous visionary leadership” is called for. “We need to be able to have a vision for what something different could look like. In terms of leadership, it’s being able to speak these things openly; not in a way to attack or tear anyone down, but in way that will move our community forward. At the end of the day, one thing I’m certain about is there are a lot of people who are on the same page about doing that. It’s just about influencing them in a way that they understand this inner connection of the lack of policy, and the non-allocation or misallocation of resources.”
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has come out in support of Community LIFT’s initiatives, but the organization’s next steps revolve heavily around the Memphis 3.0 Comprehensive Plan, which was set for discussions in late January. The plan should act as a guide and direction-setting document for the city.
“Our organization is looking toward that to help us guide some of our decision-making,” says Robertson. “We really think the Memphis 3.0 plan is a great opportunity for us as a city and a community. This will hopefully allow us as a community to marshal the resources necessary to create change, to be able to point to that neighborhood where we’ve seen revitalization, where people aren’t displaced, and where they have the opportunity to stay and benefit from change.”