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Robertson Foundation hopes to spark Purpose Built Community model in the West End

By Mark Wineka
mark.wineka@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — The Blanche & Julian Robertson Family Foundation has hired Jason Walser as a consultant to get the ball rolling on a holistic effort to revitalize the West End community.

Walser, former executive director of the LandTrust for Central North Carolina, officially started work Sept. 1.

The Robertson Foundation, a leading philanthropic organization in Salisbury, hopes to be the incubator for the West End initiative. It will follow fundamentals of the Purpose Built Communities model and could even lead to Salisbury’s becoming an official Purpose Built Community in the future.

For now, Walser says, the initiative will borrow heavily from the West End Transformation Plan that grew out of Salisbury’s CHOICE grant application a few years back.

“It was teed up and ready to go,” Walser says of the plan. “We’re going to pick up the ball and keep going with it.”

The Purpose Built Communities concept for the West End is an approach Robertson Foundation board members and others in the city have been discussing seriously for at least two years. And members of the PBC staff have been in close contact with Salisbury representatives.

Julian H. Robertson Jr., a Salisbury native and former hedge fund manager whose monetary gifts have financed the foundation named for his parents, is one of the cofounders of Purpose Built Communities.

Robertson joined billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Atlanta developer Tom Cousins in establishing the non-profit organization in 2009.

Purpose Built Communities works to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty by using an approach that requires high-quality mixed-income housing, a cradle-to-college emphasis on education and various community wellness programs.

Everything is guided by a “community quarterback,” or leadership group. Usually, the quarterback is a newly created nonprofit that brings community members together, builds partnerships, secures funding and oversees implementation of the housing, education and wellness components.

Walser and former Salisbury Mayor Margaret Kluttz, chairman of the Robertson Foundation board, stress the West End quarterback will be a new non-profit entity — not the foundation.

“We’re new at this,” Kluttz says. “I think we’re in spring training now.”

Kluttz says the city of Salisbury will have to be a key partner, but it also will not be the quarterback.

If Salisbury ever is chosen to have a Purpose Built Community, it would be the smallest city in the country with that distinction. For now, Rome, Ga., is the smallest.

Over the past two years, various representatives of the foundation, city of Salisbury, Salisbury Housing Authority and a few private citizens have toured other Purpose Built Communities, attended the PBC annual conference and spoken with PBC executives.

The closest Purpose Built Communities are located in Charlotte and Spartanburg, S.C.

The PBC model goes back to 1995 when Cousins decided to tackle the revitalization of the East Lake Meadows community in Atlanta, which had some of the worst crime rates in the nation, rampant drug use, substandard schools and high poverty.

Cousins joined forces with the Atlanta Housing Authority and resident leaders to develop the three-pronged, holistic approach. Overall, it was an effort to make sure a person’s geography would no longer limit his or her potential.

Purpose Built Communities as an organization was established by Buffett, Robertson and Cousins to replicate the East Lake model that turned out to be successful. Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who has visited a previous Salisbury City Council retreat, is one of the higher-profile public faces of the organization.

There are at least 10 Purpose Built Communities in the country, and the organization is exploring redevelopment initiatives in at least 20 more.

When the PBC partners with a local lead organization — the kind the Robertson Foundation hopes to establish — it makes available a dream team of other community quarterbacks, philanthropists, educators, developers, finance managers, grant writers, affordable housing directors, real estate executives, community planners, attorneys, corporate officers and other experts.

In investigating the Purpose Built Community organization, Kluttz acknowledges she kept asking herself what the catch was. What would be the price or obligation from Salisbury’s end for the West End to become a Purpose Built Community?

“It’s nothing,” Kluttz says. “It’s just if your community is stepping up to the plate. There’s no catch. You just have to live up to the local commitment to make this work.”

Walser describes the Purpose Built Community program as a clearinghouse for best practices. He stresses again Salisbury is not a Purpose Built Community yet, but he says the model makes enough sense — and the West End Transformation Plan has the same foundation — to follow its tenets.

Walser says he has not encountered any resistance to this kind of approach for the West End, and he describes many of the stakeholders as “raring to go.” Walser, for one, would love to be able to show some quick successes, to build some momentum.

But whatever happens with West End in the future will be a long-term challenge and require a total community commitment for a long period of time, Kluttz says.

She thinks one of the most important things is building trust and having an accurate stream of information. She also realizes other initiatives in the West End have often stalled.

“So many pause buttons have been pushed over the years,” Kluttz says.

A huge challenge will be the cradle-to-college approach on education. Most Purpose Built Communities establish charter schools, but that’s not a given.

West End has a significant head start in the mixed-income housing component with the two-phased construction of Brenner Crossing, which combines public and affordable housing options.

West End has a lot of other things going for it that could help with the Purpose Built Community model, Kluttz and Walser contend. Those things include Livingstone College, the YMCA, Salisbury High School, Livingstone’s 42-acre site for a farm, Miller Recreation Center, the old Price High School and Hall Gymnasium, the Duncan School building, Salisbury Community Development Corp. headquarters, the Salisbury-Rowan Community Action Association, two neighborhood groups and some strong churches.

Though ultimately unsuccessful, the CHOICE grant process showed the strong sense of pride, history and heritage people still felt for this section of Salisbury, Kluttz says.

“In the community, West End was something special,” she adds.

Walser has been meeting with people and doing a lot of reading and research since taking on the consulting job with the foundation. He has been working at the Robertson Foundation office downtown but is hoping to relocate soon into the West End, possibly at the Salisbury Community Development Corp. office.

Kluttz says the stars aligned for the foundation to help in possibly making West End a Purpose Built Community, and the biggest star was Walser when he agreed to help.

Walser has all the strengths needed to get this initiative on its feet, Kluttz says. But stakeholders in the West End also have to embrace the concept and eventually take the lead, she says.

“We’re going into this eyes wide open,” Walser says.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263. 

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