Jamestown, NY, Part III: Intersector collaboration key to ongoing revitalization

Guest Post by Peter Lombardi, Jamestown Renaissance Corporation

blog_image_JamestownPart3When communities have a complex problem with multiple causes and no single solution, they need to assemble a range of initiatives to attack the problem from different angles. Cross-sector collaborations are the best way to accomplish this and are a central part of ongoing neighborhood revitalization efforts in Jamestown, New York, a small upstate city of 30,000.

The latest phase of neighborhood revitalization began in 2009 when the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation — a public-private partnership that was founded in 2006 to coordinate downtown development efforts — commissioned a plan with support from several local foundations, the City of Jamestown, and the city’s Strategic Planning and Partnerships Commission. Completed by czbLLC, the plan included a thorough analysis of the housing market and found that a culture of disinvestment had crept throughout the city due to weak market conditions, gradual population loss, suburbanization, and a waning sense of community pride.

The plan found, for example, that 90 percent of city streets had at least two homes in poor condition. Those homes, when located on otherwise stable blocks, were found to extract up to $25,000 in value from neighboring homes in good repair. This proximity to blight was stunting levels of reinvestment by property owners across the city, leading to an estimate that Jamestown homeowners were collectively withholding up to $17 million in basic upgrades each year. After all, why pour money into new siding and landscaping if the house across the street is falling apart and makes your home worth less and hard to sell?

The plan, which was adopted by the City Council in December 2010, recognized that addressing these deeply rooted market failures would require coordination by multiple partners over several years and that the initiatives needed to stabilize the market would be numerous and wide-ranging.

Since then, the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation has been the lead coordinator on efforts to implement strategies from the plan. A not-for-profit with 501(c)(3) status, the JRC has the city’s mayor as a board co-chair and includes representatives from the City Council and Department of Development on its board. The rest of the board includes representatives from the private and non-profit sectors. As a result, the organization’s board brings together key players from multiple sectors and facilitates a level of cross-sector communication that assists with project implementation.

The Renaissance Block Challenge has been the flagship effort of the JRC and represents the types of cross-sector partnerships that the JRC builds around each project. This competitive program seeks to boost confidence and pride in neighborhoods and build leadership capacity by asking for clusters of homeowners to come forward each year with a commitment to making exterior improvements to their properties. Participants in each cluster (which need at least five properties to be eligible) receive up to $1,000 to match their investment toward painting, landscaping, porch repair, and a variety of other projects. Because this project depends on the initiative of neighborhood leaders and the property owners they manage to rally, private homeowners are the key private sector partner.

Other partners in the Renaissance Block Challenge are the funders, which have included local foundations, banks, and Chautauqua County. Businesses have also participated by providing discounts on landscaping and other home improvement supplies. And the City of Jamestown has assisted through tree planting and other infrastructure improvements.

In the first three years of the program, 142 property owners in 15 clusters participated in the program, investing almost $400,000 in eligible exterior improvements. Of that total, 70 percent has been contributed directly by the property owners. Besides the major and minor visual improvements that have boosted confidence in each cluster, the program has assisted with the emergence of new neighborhood leaders, strengthened communication between property owners, and spurred new investment on blocks adjacent to the Renaissance Blocks.

As intended by the plan, the blocks participating in the Renaissance Block Challenge have been in areas of strategic value — including neighborhoods where the housing market still has strength and places of high visibility areas that influence perceptions of the city.

In neighborhoods where the housing market is very weak and housing conditions are poor — places where $1,000 matching grants are unlikely to leverage significant private investment — different tactics are required. In those areas, home and rental rehabilitation programs for low to moderate income families funded through the city’s Community Development Block Grant are used to complete substantial rehab projects.

Demolition of the most substandard homes is also a pressing need in weak neighborhoods and transitional neighborhoods. This is being addressed by a partnership between the city and the recently established Chautauqua County Land Bank. Both entities will work together to demolish 40 houses in Jamestown over the next two years (with funding assistance from the New York State Office of the Attorney General) in an effort to remove serious blight, bolster community confidence, and remove barriers to reinvestment.

Another key partnership that has emerged to address conditions in both stable, transitional, and weak neighborhoods is GROW Jamestown, an effort to promote neighborhood health and vitality through gardening and landscaping. Steered by the JRC, this program includes a front garden recognition program that awards small garden signs to the city’s most attractive gardens in order to acknowledge the value that gardens contribute to attractive and healthy neighborhoods. A small network of community gardens has also been developed through GROW Jamestown to repurpose vacant land in a way that adds beauty and activity to vacant lots. This work has been supported by local foundations, by a state health department grant coordinated by the Chautauqua County Health Network, and by revisions to the city zoning code.

While this work is only beginning, the projects and partnerships now in place reflect the multi-faceted approach necessary to address the economic and social forces that influence neighborhood conditions. They also reflect how crucial it is to develop a well-coordinated system of cross-sector collaborations to accomplish a community’s long-term revitalization goals.

For more information on the work of the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation, visit www.jamestownrenaissance.org.

Peter Lombardi is Deputy Director of the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation and Chairman of the Chautauqua County Land Bank. He received a Master’s degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers. His first book, Jamestown, New York: A Guide to the City and its Urban Landscape, was published in 2014 by SUNY Press.

Editor’s Note: This is the last of a three part series on the revitalization of Jamestown, New York. Read Part I, “The Need for Cross-Sector Partnership” and Part II, “Lessons Learned From a History of Cross-Sector Collaboration.”