January 29, 2021 – By Chad Smith

To promote health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, the City and County of San Francisco rapidly moved over 2,000 people experiencing homelessness into city-contracted private hotels. These hotels, however, did not all have working phones available for guest use, thereby limiting essential services and connections for guests. The California COVID Command Center, a mixture of departments across cities, was tasked in June 2020 to initiate a pilot program to support phone access in these accommodations. As guests were being asked to shelter-in-place, telephonic communication was critical for vulnerable populations to access case management, behavioral and mental health supports, wellness screenings, and connectedness to family and friends.

In collaboration with the San Francisco COVID Command Center, the San Francisco Human Services Agency, Innovation Office (SFHSAIO) completed a user-centered, data-informed, two-phase prototyping pilot to design the best approach to successfully enroll the newly-sheltered clients onto phone services in response to COVID-19.

Since 1985, the LifeLine program has provided discounted phone service for qualifying low-income consumers to ensure that all Americans have the opportunities and security that phone service brings, including being able to connect to jobs, family, and emergency services.

Who Was Involved

  • San Francisco Human Services Agency, Innovation Office (SFHSAIO), in collaboration with the California COVID Command Center, providing Service Design expertise
  • California Department of Public Health, providing mental health and client expertise
  • California IT team, which had previously procured tablets for its housing-related work


Two pilots launched to address the problem of getting phone access to hotel guests.

The first pilot included setting up a Google Voice number on previously-distributed tablets. Google Voice is a free service that makes it possible to send and receive calls and text messages over a cellular or WiFi data connection. The SFHSAIO team worked with a number of guests to set up Google Voice accounts that included an assigned phone number. Guests could use this new phone number on tablet devices available in their hotel. The process to set up tablets was lengthy, and some guests also did not have an email address, which had to be created in order to enroll them.

Once set up, guests could use their tablets to make and receive phone calls.

The second pilot enrolled hotel guests in telephone services through a roving, on-the-ground team. The California Lifeline Program collaborates with a large number of cell phone providers who provide cell phones at a variety of rates from free to low cost. The application process takes up to 30 days from start to finish, with field agents helping to handout phones on the ground.

After researching the LifeLine plans available that would best suit the client population, the SFHSAIO team identified two phone providers that offered free plans and free phones. The SFHSAIO team was unable to identify a field agent that could be brought on site to assist guests in registering for LifeLine phones.

The SFHSAIO team then set up a space in the hotel lobby to gather insights by enrolling clients who did not have cell phone access. The team connected clients to LifeLine program administrative assistants to resolve barriers and assist client enrollment in the program.

Pilot Recommendations

When evaluating the return on investment, the first pilot was free of charge to access, but required access to tablets or devices and human support to set up and maintain. For the second pilot, there was a cost of $57.50 per client with only a 20% successful enrollment rate, which made it infeasible for the desired goal.

Because success rates were low and staff capacity was limited during the COVID-19 emergency, after conducting both pilots, the final recommendation was to a third option: handing out pre-activated phones, with limited functionality previously activated on their carrier network, at hotel sites. This avenue would reduce the strain on scarce staff resources, while ensuring a high success rate and quicker access.

KPI Metrics

The final recommendation of handing out phones with data already activated onsite was determined after evaluating the following key performance indicators (KPIs):

  1. length of time per phone registration per client
  2. success rate for enrollment onto the program
  3. success rate for conversion from enrollment to actually owning an activated phone
  4. cost per client
  5. uptake of method (i.e., frequency of usage of device)

Key Customer Journey Pain Point Learnings from Both Pilots

  1. needing email address to sign-up for LifeLine program 
  2. coordinating with guests during limited pilot hours
  3. troubleshooting for guests with existing LifeLine accounts that could not remember their info and were locked out
  4. tablet logistics (tracking, distribution, incentives for returning, thefts and damage)
  5. missing identification of required documents to enroll in LifeLine

Factors to Repeat the San Francisco Pilot Learning Processes

For state and local Health and Human Services departments exploring the best approach to enroll recently-displaced vulnerable populations onto a connected phone service, building prototypes to learn from and deliver the best experience should include the following steps:

Leadership and Management Teams

  • Gather voices across impacted teams: Talk to a variety of stakeholders in managerial and non-supervisory roles, in different departments, and to clients themselves to understand what’s working and identify frustrations and barriers. 
  • Establish metrics or KPIs: Define success using clear realities, resources needed, cost of setup feasibility, and time to implement.
  • Create strategic buy-in: Start with on-the-ground staff, and then move to Community Partner Organizations (CPO), hotel site leads, hotel site managers and clients/guests.

Direct Service, Service Design and Policy Teams

  • Map barriers to enrollment: Identify barriers for different enrollment paths and plan for them upfront. Potential enrollees, for example, may not have an email address required for enrollment registration.
  • Troubleshoot with guests: Sometimes guests will not have official documents available such as a government-issued ID. Working through these types of barriers will reduce guest frustration and lack of trust. 
  • Manage challenges with third-party phone vendors: Carefully research third-party phone vendors to ensure clients are not a victim of fraud. Contact information for third-party vendors is not commonly available, as most community interaction is done on the ground and face-to-face. This means it’s important to go through a process of vetting reputable phone providers, and following up to ensure guests received the phones they registered for if done through third-party vendor distributors.
  • Keep everyone’s “eyes on the prize”: Remember, and share in, the excitement and gratitude of having a phone again.

May 6, 2020 | By Jen Collins and Ryan Goss

This is part of our ‘Impact in Action’ series, co-produced with the Centre for Public Impact, highlighting innovative models and lessons for driving positive community impact through investment and development projects across America. Read the other stories from Baltimore, MD and Kannapolis, NC.

A central valley city on the rise

Merced, California is a city of many slogans. Known as the Gateway to Yosemite, Merced’s 83,000 residents are nestled just 80 miles west of the Yosemite park entrance and a two-hour drive southeast of San Francisco. Though it is located on the outskirts of these attractions, Merced is sometimes forgotten – a sentiment poignantly captured on the Chamber of Commerce website which reads, Merced. Who Knew? But, in recent years, Mayor Mike Murphy has introduced a new slogan for his city, one that reminds of past economic struggles and paints a vision for a prosperous future: Merced: A City on the Rise.

Although Merced has seen steady economic growth in the decade following the 2008 Recession, a closer look reveals a truth shared by communities in the state and across the country: not all have not benefited equally from the last decade of economic growth. This truth stands to worsen as the impacts of COVID-19 damage local economies and exacerbate pre-existing geographic and racial inequalities.

Merced’s renaissance – one forged through key private and public investments – reveals important lessons that could help communities chart a course towards renewal.

Guiding Principles for Impact in Low-Income Communities

Alongside its partners, the Beeck Center created the Opportunity Zone Reporting Impact Framework, a voluntary guideline designed to define best practices for investors and fund managers looking to invest in low-income communities through incentives such as Opportunity Zones (OZ). In the sections that follow, we explore the redevelopment projects in Merced, extracting the lessons to help communities and investors bring the five guiding principles of effective and equitable investments to life:

    1. Community Engagement
    2. Equity
    3. Transparency
    4. Measurement
    5. Outcomes

A city grows quieter

Merced’s story between the 1940s and 1990s is one of a hard-working community with a bustling Main Street. As with many counties in California’s central valley, Merced’s regional economy was, and is, powered by agriculture. Merced county is the fifth top producer in the state, growing 90% of California’s sweet potatoes and generating $500 million annually in almond sales alone. For fifty years, the city of Merced also revolved around a large Air Force base and its proximity to Yosemite. These assets funneled consumers downtown, where military families and park visitors were frequent diners and shoppers along Merced’s Main Street. Celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, and President John F. Kennedy would pass through town, often checking-in at the downtown Hotel Tioga. Just down the road, the 1920s art deco Manzier theater housed decades of live stage shows and indie film screenings. According to Merced’s Chamber of Commerce President Sara Cribari Hill, “30 years ago, downtown was the place to be.”

But Merced soon saw economic changes. In 1995, Castle Air Force base shut its doors, damaging local retail and real estate markets. A decade later, in the midst of the Great Recession, Merced saw one of the nation’s worst declines in housing prices. In the surrounding county, increasing globalization made the agriculture-powered economy particularly susceptible to economic downturns and trade wars.

Today, in downtown Merced, Main Street is much quieter than it once was. The Tioga – now an apartment building – as well as the Manzier theater have struggled with ownership turnover. As one resident described it, downtown became a “place in waiting.” In 2017, seven census tracts – mostly clustered in downtown Merced – were marked as Opportunity Zones. A further look into these zones reveals economic troubles.

Along certain indicators of economic health, downtown Merced has lagged California and the U.S. averages

MetricDowntown Merced Opportunity ZoneCalifornia AverageNational Average
Growth of per Capita Income

(% change in 5 years)
Net New Businesses Growth7.6%35.2%34.4%
Labor Market Engagement

Composite metric that measures employment, labor force participation, and % with bachelor degree
Minority / Women-owned Business

As a percentage of all businesses
*A commitment to measurement is one the five guiding principles of equitable and effective investments. Through tools such as Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth Inclusive Growth Score, you can track the degree to which the environment, economy and community in a given census tract benefit from equitable growth.
Source: Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, Inclusive Growth Score

But, if you look even closer, it’s clear that Merced has signs of promise.

An Integrated Model for Economic Revitalization

The old way of thinking

Community development projects often fail unless they are connected to the community’s economic priorities and a regional growth strategy. For example, when a 10,000 person capacity convention center opened in downtown Niagara Falls in the 1970s, the surrounding downtown infrastructure was ill-equipped to provide visitors with a cohesive one-stop-shop for dining, lodging, and entertainment. In 2002, the city replaced the convention center with a casino, and while it brought many dining and entertainment options, it remained disconnected to the community around it.

Niagara Falls has since taken steps to create a more economically integrated community, but the lesson from the area’s stagnant growth remains true: when investment strategies in under-developed communities focus on revitalizing single buildings and businesses, rather than strengthening blocks or ecosystems of activity, they often fail to unlock a community’s economic potential.

A multi-stage strategy takes shape in Merced

For years, Merced seemed destined for a similar fate. But recently, the community has begun to bounce back. In 2005, Merced became home to the latest University of California campus: UC Merced, which rests a few miles outside downtown. In the subsequent years, UC Merced has become the fastest growing public research university in the nation. “People saw Merced was growing but not fast enough to keep pace,” shares Ed Klotzbier, the Vice Chancellor UC Merced, “So we did something unprecedented.” Through an innovative public-private financing model, the university launched a $1.3 billion redevelopment effort to double UC Merced’s campus by 2020.

Though the main campus sits outside of downtown, the expansion stands to have a significant impact across the community. “We didn’t want to just be five miles outside of city proper,” Ed shares, “We also wanted to be right downtown. We wanted to let the community know that we’re here and that we’ll help create a place where our best and brightest will want to live.” Recognizing the importance of its downtown presence, the university built a three-story Downtown Center right across from City Hall.

As Mayor Mike Murphy learned, an integrated approach to revitalization requires more than a single institution. “We’ve had a tremendous amount of state investment in the form of UC Merced, and now we have a great deal of private sector investment,” says Mayor Murphy. “An important part of success is to have both public and private sector investment partners.” In 2018, construction began on a privately-funded $65 million multi-year renovation of three historic downtown landmarks: the Tioga Apartments, the Manzier Theater, and El Capitan Hotel, all of which rest within two blocks of one another.

Together, the university, the city, and private developers are creating a cohesive corridor of revitalization, reflecting elements of what community development experts call the street corner thesis. The thesis “focuses on creating a dense ecosystem of businesses, properties, and residences — mixed-income, mixed-purpose and mixed-use — at vital intersections or along historic business corridors of a community.” This multi-pronged approach reinforces the economic, social, and cultural importance of central community corridors. “Downtown is the heartbeat of our city,” reflects Mayor Murphy. “It’s everyone’s downtown. It’s where we gather as a community. It gives us a sense of place that reflects our goals, aspiration and values.”

Though construction on these development projects is not yet complete, downtown is already beginning to show signs of renewal.

The impacts of Merced’s economic renewal have begun to show positive signs in downtown Merced

MetricDowntown Merced Opportunity ZoneCalifornia AverageNational Average
Growth in Average Spending per Capita31.4%8.3%7.2%
Commercial Diversity

Change in business types as percentage of total possible business types
Overall Spend Growth

Growth of spending overall
*A commitment to measuring and reporting outcomes is one the five guiding principles of equitable and effective investments.
Source: Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, Inclusive Growth Score

Lessons Learned & Recommendations

The journey towards a rejuvenated Merced is far from over, but the process to-date – along with six months of research into strategies for driving positive impact through private investment – yielded some valuable lessons for unlocking inclusive growth and economic recovery.

Opportunity to Impact: An Investment Assessment*

The Centre for Public Impact – alongside its advisors at Georgetown’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation – set out to better understand the process of generating positive community impact through private investment and development. The resulting tool, Opportunity to Impact, is a simple, yet rigorous guide for evaluating an investment project’s potential for positive impact. Some of the findings from this research is embedded in the section below.

Set impact objectives early

As redevelopment plans began coming to life in Merced, there was skepticism among some long-time residents. Indeed, in economically distressed communities across the nation, this trend holds. To convert skepticism into buy-in, open communication is required among public officials, developers, and investors alike.

A transparent process begins with setting clear objectives – early in the development process – for how the investment will translate into positive community impact. Investors, public officials, and residents should identify the specific impact results the investment aims to achieve – whether that includes bringing high-quality jobs, creating accessible housing options, supporting transportation connectivity, or improving lives in other lasting ways. These objectives should be set early in the process, align with a community’s economic development priorities, and address an area of clear community need. Creating a document to demonstrate a community’s economic development priorities – such as an Opportunity Zone prospectus – can be a valuable tool – for residents to showcase their needs and for investors to understand how projects fit into a broader strategy.

Refine the approach and gather feedback often

In order to achieve these impact objectives, it is critical to get feedback early on and throughout a project. A report from the Urban Land Institute featuring strategies for creating healthy urban corridors recommends establishing formal channels for communication and feedback with the community. It suggests surveying local businesses and residents to understand their needs and establishing teams to guide the redevelopment process in a particular corridor of the city. A redevelopment steering committee, for example, can play an important role in bringing voices to the table and guiding the vision for how business owners and community groups will each contribute to a vibrant neighborhood. In Merced, creating this forum would help the university community and residents weigh-in on how assets like the Manzier theater might serve their needs. In other places, a community benefits agreement has proven to be a useful mechanism of accountability between residents and developers.

Tell the story

Ultimately, unlocking a community’s economic potential revolves around communication. “Storytelling is hugely important,” reflects Merced’s Chamber of Commerce President Sara Cribari Hill. In order to convince others that Merced is indeed a city on the rise, “it’s critical to find new and interesting ways to tell our story – whether that’s through social media or through personal connections,” Sara reflects. This requires all actors to have a visible presence in the community, gaining feedback on how the downtown properties are addressing areas of community need at regular intervals in the development process.

Making a City Rise Together

The story of revitalization is never simple and never short. A deliberate effort between public officials, the state, developers, and residents must be marked by shared goals, open communication, and constant refinement. “It’s important to never lose sight of shared goals.” Mayor Murphy notes, “With that as the starting point, we can focus on how we achieve that.” Merced, as with many communities navigating the economic fall-out of a global pandemic, must continue writing its own story of renewal. But, with its commitment to collaboration, the city has the right pieces in place to once again make Merced “the place to be.”

Jen Collins is a Fellow-in-Residence for the Beeck Center. Follow her on Twitter @JenCollins24

Ryan Goss is a Senior Associate at the Centre for Public Impact, where his work focuses on helping governments and their partners improve people’s economic mobility and flourish over time. Follow him on Twitter @R_Goss1

May 6, 2020 | By Jen Collins and Ryan Goss

This is part of our ‘Impact in Action’ series, co-produced with the Centre for Public Impact, highlighting innovative models and lessons for driving positive community impact through investment and development projects across America. Read the other stories from Kannapolis, NC and Merced, CA.

Below the surface of disrepair, a vision of hope

For the last two years, it would be easy to drive by the Northwood Plaza Shopping Center without noticing it. If you caught a glimpse as you passed through Northeast Baltimore, you might notice a pair of broken pay phones, one listing 45° to its side. You might notice the row of boarded-up storefronts.

You might not realize that the once segregated shopping center was the site of historic Civil Rights activism. You might not realize that a renowned academic institution is producing the next generation of leaders next door. You might not realize that there’s been a decades-long struggle to create a new vision for the complex, and that this vision is about to become reality.

Below the surface, the story of Northwood Plaza reveals important lessons about the long and often difficult process of community revitalization. As neighborhoods across the nation look to rebuild following the economic and social devastation of COVID-19, reflecting on these lessons is as important as ever.

Guiding Principles for Equitable Investments

Alongside its partners, the Beeck Center created the Opportunity Zone Impact Reporting Framework, a voluntary guideline designed to define best practices for investors and fund managers looking to invest in low-income communities through incentives such as Opportunity Zones (OZ). In the sections that follow, we explore the projects in Baltimore, extracting the lessons to help communities and investors bring the five guiding principles of effective and equitable investments to life:

    • Community Engagement
    • Equity
    • Transparency
    • Measurement
    • Outcomes

To prioritize equity, it is critical to understand a community’s history

The shopping center’s deserted storefronts reveal the truth that prosperity has not been evenly spread across the city of Baltimore. Only four of Baltimore’s 200 census tracts have per-capita incomes greater than $100,000, and in these tracts, only 5% of residents are black. Yet, in Baltimore City overall, 62% of residents are black.

This disparity is rooted in a long history of systemic racism in Baltimore and across the nation. When Northwood resident Paula Purviance first attended Morgan State College in 1968, the communities in Northeast Baltimore were still in the throes of a turbulent racial integration process. “To walk along one of the main roads to campus, many students felt uncomfortable and minimized,” Ms. Purviance remembers. “As a result, students would walk to the campus by way of the rear alley of Cold Spring Lane.”

Throughout the middle of the 20th century in Northwood, as in many neighborhoods across Baltimore, white property owners used racial covenants to prevent property from being sold to or occupied by black and Jewish residents. Though the Supreme Court struck down these covenants in 1948, the language still remains in many official property records.

As the Civil Rights movement spread across the nation, Northwood Plaza Shopping Center became a hub of activism. In 1955, an interracial group of students from next door Morgan State College – what eventually became Maryland’s largest Historically Black University – were denied entry to segregated Northwood Theater. In 1963, the theater again became the site of anti-segregation protests, where hundreds of students were arrested and charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct.

crowd in front of a movie theater, 1955
Apr. 30, 1955: In a test of Segregation laws, an interracial group of about 150 students seeks entrance to the Northwood Theatre, none were admitted. Published in Morning Sun. Baltimore Sun Photo
African-Americans being refused entry to a theater in 1963
Feb. 19, 1963: A man blocks the entrance to the Northwood Theatre where some 150 members of the Civic Interest Group demonstrated last night. All were arrested and charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct during the protest against segregation at the theater. Photo by Sun photographer William L. LaForce.

These remaining markings of institutional racism reveal the barriers that have long prevented people of color from having a voice in, owning, or making decisions about their community in Northeast Baltimore. This reality often gives rise to skepticism in residents when investors try to upgrade community assets. “Oftentimes, there’s a natural skepticism and distrust within communities of outside or institutional investors who, either intentionally or unintentionally, disregard the best interests of the community and do more damage than good to existing residents and businesses,” notes Ben Seigel, Baltimore’s Opportunity Zone Coordinator. But with collaboration, cooperation, and accountability, Ben believes that there can be common ground.

Mistrust turns into a unified vision

While the Northwood Plaza Shopping Center eventually became integrated and overseen by new owners in the 1970s, the neighborhood still struggled with violence. In 2008, former Baltimore City Councilman Ken Harris was shot and killed outside a nightclub in the complex. In the decade following, the death of Councilman Harris lingered over the property and by 2017, Northwood Plaza had fallen into disrepair.

Before the businesses officially closed, a struggle to reimagine the shopping center was decades in the making. “There was massive mistrust of all the different stakeholders when we first started this project,” remembers Mark Renbaum of MLR Partners, the initial developer involved in re-developing the complex. “When I first got involved in the project, I thought it was going to be easy – and that everyone would embrace change necessary to redevelop Northwood into a first-class destination. But what we learned is that there are a lot of stakeholders with a lot of different visions for what they thought it could be. And all of those voices needed to be heard first before anything could get done.”

By all accounts, the over 20-years of negotiations among community leaders, Morgan State leaders, public officials, and the owners was exhausting and contentious. And yet, with patience and compromise, political interventions and financial subsidies, Northwood Plaza will soon become Northwood Commons: a new $58 million shopping center with retail and restaurant space, as well as office space for Morgan State University. At the November 2018 groundbreaking ceremony, Morgan State President Dr. David Wilson remembered the students once arrested on those grounds. “They could see this location from across the street, but they could not experience it.” 60 years later, Northwood Commons intends to become a safe and vibrant place for students and residents alike.

Theory of Change: Creating Dynamic, Livable Communities

The story of Northwood Plaza reveals the often overlooked importance of dynamic, mixed-use spaces in underserved communities. In the last half century, many community developers have focused poverty-alleviation efforts on the development of low-income rental housing. While affordable housing remains critical for millions of Americans, this approach has done little more than concentrate low-income families into smaller geographic areas farther from opportunity. The resulting concentration undermines access to good jobs, healthy food, and safe spaces with diverse commercial options. This consolidation, in part, fuels the cycle of economic inequality that leads some neighborhoods to thrive and others to flounder.

Meanwhile, some cities are experimenting with new ways of creating economically integrated neighborhoods. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo introduced the idea of a ‘15-Minute City’, suggesting that every resident should have their needs met within 15 minutes of their doorstep. This bold plan will require a sort of “anti-zoning effort” across the city to improve access to the essential functions of life, such as work, shopping, health, and culture. Similarly, East London’s Every One Every Day initiative is working to radically expand community-organized social activities, training, and business development opportunities within walking distance in one of London’s lowest-income boroughs. These cities are recognizing that “hyper-local” approaches to community development can reduce barriers to unlocking economic and social vitality.

A new space to meet community need

In Baltimore, Northwood Commons will fill some critical needs for Northwood residents and students. “This is a food desert,” says Sidney Evans, Vice President of Finance and Management at Morgan State. “I have to drive three miles to sit down and have a nice lunch with someone.” Since joining Morgan State in 2014, Sidney has participated in the negotiations to bring Northwood Commons to life. “This shopping center is going to give the community much more flexibility to fill their basic needs.”

artist rendering of Northwood Commons project
Artist rendering of Northwood Commons project. Courtesy MCB Real Estate

Beyond providing food and retail options, the space aims to foster community. The forthcoming Morgan State bookstore “will create a venue for socialization,” Sidney predicts. “It will give our community a place to talk about social issues and civil rights issues, a place for older citizens to mingle with younger people and vice versa.” Northwood Commons will also contain the Morgan State public safety department, providing a feeling of safety and security to the area. Evans hopes this safe, vibrant space will help encourage Morgan students to remain in Northwood after graduation.

Effective community development projects address clear areas of community need and have investors commit to measuring outcomes over time

Evidence of community need can be found by consulting resources such as the U.S. Census Bureaus’ Data Archive, and from community engagement activities such as town hall meetings, listening tours and community needs assessments.

Collaboration is key

In many under-served communities, investors fear that creating these types of dynamic multi-use spaces will not be financially viable. Dave Bramble is the Managing Partner of MCB Real Estate, one of the developers behind the Northwood Commons deal. Dave, who grew up just miles from Northwood, has experienced the challenge of getting these projects financed, but believes that, with the right ingredients, impactful development projects can get done and generate returns.

These deals often require sizable anchor partners – like Morgan State – to invest in the growth of a surrounding community; they require patience to create a project vision that meets a critical mass of community and financial needs; and they frequently require subsidy from the state, city, or other sources. “Deals in under-invested communities do not work in a vacuum” Dave notes. “To make a non-traditional real estate project actually work, you need other types of support – in this case, investment from a public university, funds from the state in the forms of bonds and grants, infrastructure support from the city, and federal tax credits.” Either with direct public subsidies or incentives, such as those offered by Opportunity Zones, these types of deals can overcome the seemingly insurmountable financing barriers and generate returns.

Lessons Learned

Opportunity to Impact: An Investment Assessment

The Centre for Public Impact – alongside its advisors at Georgetown’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation – set out to better understand the process of generating positive community impact through private investment and development. The resulting tool, Opportunity to Impact, is a simple, yet rigorous guide for evaluating an investment project’s potential for positive impact. Some of the findings from this research is embedded in the section below.

While Northwood Commons will not be completed until the end of 2020, the journey has yielded valuable learnings for those engaged in meaningful community development projects.

Engaging and defining “community” is not easy, but it is essential to a project’s success

Most people involved in community development will acknowledge the importance of engaging the community. But defining – let alone engaging – the community is rarely straightforward. There are over 20 neighborhood associations in Northeast Baltimore, each representing diverse subsets of Baltimore residents. Multiple of these organizations were directly involved in the Northwood Commons negotiations and they often had vastly different visions.

The largest disagreement centered on whether Morgan State student housing would be part of the complex’s future. These differences seemed destined for stalemate until the involvement of State Senator Joan Carter Conway. Senator Conway introduced a bill to block the student housing proposal and soon became an important broker for talks between the community organizations, the university, the owners, and developers.

Private developers and investors also have a critical role to play in this community engagement process, but do not always show up to the table. “The reality is that if you don’t need zoning, or you don’t need anything, it’s rare that developers will engage with the community,” notes Dave Bramble. But these forums provide information that is critical to a project’s success. “When you go to these community meetings and you really get to know these people, you realize that what you assumed they want or what they might be okay with is not necessarily true,” reflects Mark Renbaum. As the Northwood Commons project demonstrates, identifying, listening to, and compromising with community stakeholders can be the difference between continued inaction and project getting off the ground.

Meet some of the people involved in the Northwood Commons project.

Building a vision requires compromise, transparency, and assurances of accountability

Countless proposals for the shopping center circulated since the Northwood theater closed in 1981. At various points, ideas included a new hotel and conference center and a community-led design center. But each of these proposals failed to gain steam, for one reason or another, often forcing working groups to start over after years of negotiation.

Ultimately, building consensus and gaining buy-in required compromise and transparency among all parties. “It’s about being honest,” Dave Bramble notes. “When I say honest, I mean telling people stuff they don’t want to hear. Everyone might not get everything they want because, ultimately, the math has to work.” Sidney Evans knew Morgan State had to understand this perspective. “We understood that investors need a viable project, one that has a direct impact on the community, but also generates a fair return on the investment.” Evan adds, “as I talk to other University Presidents about these types of projects, you can’t just come up with any type of development project, it must add value to the community and to the investors. Capital just isn’t free.”

Ultimately, navigating these conversations required an honest broker: someone – or something – to ensure accountability. Together, developers and community leaders eventually drafted a Community Benefits Agreement. This contract between community groups and the developer guarantees certain amenities and mitigation of certain risks. With concrete accountability measures and a bold yet achievable plan in place, the long talks began transforming into action for Northwood.

An Honorable Path Forward

Beyond filling commercial needs or achieving returns, Northwood Commons is about pride. As Ms. Purviance remembers, “the community residents felt there was no pride in the look of the shopping center.” But she was motivated to help build a vibrant and safe community for her child. This inspired her to again become affiliated with the community association, volunteer as one of the co-chairs of the Northwood Shopping Center Task Force, and become the President of the Hillen Road Community Association. At the November 2018 groundbreaking ceremony, Ms. Purviance addressed the crowd: “This morning gives me a ray of hope, and we need that ray of hope… Each of us here today, is looking forward to what can be a grand shopping center, that will be seen as an asset to the Northeast communities and to the city as a whole.”

Jen Collins is a Fellow-in-Residence for the Beeck Center. Follow her on Twitter @JenCollins24

Ryan Goss is a Senior Associate at the Centre for Public Impact, where his work focuses on helping governments and their partners improve people’s economic mobility and flourish over time. Follow him on Twitter @R_Goss1

May 6, 2020 | By Jen Collins and Ryan Goss

This is part of our ‘Impact in Action’ series, co-produced with the Centre for Public Impact, highlighting innovative models and lessons for driving positive community impact through investment and development projects across America. Read the other stories from Baltimore, MD and Merced, CA.

A community that changed in a day

Overnight, 4,340 people lost their jobs.

The closing of Cannon Mills textile factory in Kannapolis was the largest one-day layoff in North Carolina history. Entire households lost their incomes in a flash. Once the world’s largest producer of towels and sheets, Kannapolis transformed from a bustling middle-class community to a town with an uncertain future.

While the sudden nature of the 2003 closing was a shock in Kannapolis, the consequences of declining manufacturing industries had already affected communities across the southeast. Nearly two decades later, many of the towns most affected by this economic disruption continue to lay dormant and devoid of opportunity.

But something different is happening in Kannapolis: construction has begun on a $52 million baseball stadium, a $17 million streetscape renovation is near complete, and a 350-acre Research Campus now rests on the mill grounds. Private capital is working alongside public investment to rebuild Kannapolis. After decades of decline, Kannapolis’ emerging downtown brings hope of economic opportunity and renewed pride for residents.

As the economic impacts of COVID-19 spread across the nation, many communities are experiencing devastation similar to Kannapolis after its sudden mill closure: residents are out of work, downtown businesses are folding, and the promise of an economically vibrant future seems an uncertain reality. As the world transitions from crisis management to economic recovery, the lessons of Kannapolis’ transformation will be as important as ever. While the journey of recovery has been neither fast nor easy, it reveals the promise of a revitalization thesis centered on the power of partnership to turn a community around.

Guiding Principles for Equitable Investments

Alongside its partners, the Beeck Center created the Opportunity Zone Reporting Framework, a voluntary guideline designed to define best practices for investors and fund managers looking to invest in low-income communities through incentives such as Opportunity Zones (OZ). In the sections that follow, we explore the projects in Kannapolis, extracting the lessons to help communities and investors bring the five guiding principles of effective and equitable investments to life:

    • Community Engagement
    • Equity
    • Transparency
    • Measurement
    • Outcomes

A model for change

In the early 1990s, downtown Durham was struggling. Like Kannapolis, Durham was hit hard by declining industry. For several decades, the historic business district lay devoid of significant investment. With rising crime rates and a downtown falling further into disrepair, the city’s future looked bleak.

Downtown Durham began to change when local officials realized the power of strategic public investments. The city pursued creative public financing measures to build a new minor league baseball stadium and fund public infrastructure. Private developers soon acquired vacant properties, created large scale redevelopment plans, and transformed factories and department stores into offices and apartments. At the same time, Duke University expanded its off-campus presence downtown. Today, Durham is seen as one of the most striking downtown turnarounds in the nation, and it was forged through bold public-private partnerships.

Durham's Downtown Turnaround at a Glance

Downtown Durham Metrics19932019% Change
# of Residents1,4507,200+397%
# of Employees3,80021,300+460%
Office Occupancy70%91%+30%
Source: Downtown Durham, Inc.

While the city has undoubtedly rebounded, Durham still struggles with challenges such as poverty, affordable housing, and racial inequality. These persistent issues remind us of the often overlooked need to ensure economic growth is equitable, particularly for a community’s most marginalized residents. While challenges remain, elements of Durham’s decades-long growth reveal the potential when private and public dollars work together to spur change, an approach that offers promise for places like Kannapolis.

The Small Cities Thesis

A revitalization experiment

The economic value of small and mid-sized cities is often overlooked1While there is no single definition of a small and mid-size community, here we are referring to cities or towns with a population of about 50,000 to 250,000 people on the outskirts of larger regional economic hubs. These might also be called “tertiary” cities nationally. . As a recent report explains, many of these communities struggle to create “pull” factors that overcome the “push” factors that drive prospective residents, employers, and investors elsewhere, such as obsolete infrastructure, an over-reliance on traditional industry, and a limited human capital base. The reality is that, for some communities, the severity of these challenges means wholesale revitalization is out of reach absent some sort of radical disruption.

But in other communities, there is economic growth waiting to burst. A group of investors, developers, and government partners have been working on a new experiment to unlock the potential of these places, what they call the “small cities thesis.” The thesis advances the idea that long-term private and public capital can work alongside each other to spur sustainable economic growth and generate risk-adjusted returns to investors in small cities that have otherwise been left behind.

Shekar Narasimhan, one of the investors driving this experiment, notes “there are places where the ingredients for success have always been there, but all they need is a spark.” This spark is often initiated by local leaders who build a vision, take a risk to launch investment downtown, and bring along partners to achieve that vision. The thesis suggests that this spark can unlock growth in cities with certain characteristics:

Community Identification Characteristics

The thesis aims to unlock the economic potential of small cities that have:

  1. Seen a decline in population density but have a downtown infrastructure in place
    When a major employer closes its doors or relocates to the suburbs, once densely populated downtowns often become under-utilized and dilapidated. Instead of displacing existing residents, the thesis expands on the existing infrastructure and aims to fill gaps with people and investment.
  2. Community-minded developer(s) or a public entity that owns, and is willing to transform, a critical mass of distressed assets
    Launching a unified vision for revitalization is nearly impossible when a large share of a downtown’s distressed property has disparate owners. But when a city, state, or team of developers own these assets, it’s possible to overcome the inertia that often prevents projects from getting off the ground.
  3. Community assets that lend themselves to growth
    Community assets such as transportation options (e.g. rail and highway access) and anchor institutions (e.g. universities, hospitals, and government bodies) are critical to ensuring a place can benefit from and contribute to the growth of its surrounding region.
  4. Strong local leadership and a plan for growth
    Achieving a bold vision for growth requires leadership and investment from local public officials and residents. Without it, private investment is likely to be ineffective.
  5. Investors with a commitment to a long-term vision
    Investors must be willing to uproot the short-term investment mindset and work with local partners towards a long-term vision for rejuvenation. This requires patient capital and long-term investment.

Focusing investments in the downtown corridor aims to positively impact the community. In many small cities, downtown is the lifeblood of the community: a place for jobs, a venue for entrepreneurs, a space for convening, and a hub for transportation. If re-modeled with resident input, a vibrant downtown can inspire pride, improve quality of life, and fuel access to economic opportunity. When deciding where to locate and attract talent, employers increasingly look for vibrant and walkable downtowns. For the Kannapolis residents still struggling with the aftermath of layoffs, the stability of their future is tied to attracting employers offering equitable job opportunities.

Bringing the experiment to life

To test this thesis, a group of private and non-profit partners launched the Remergent Fund, a qualified Opportunity Zone (OZ) Fund that will invest in emerging main streets and local entrepreneurs in small cities in the Southeast. Beginning in their backyard markets of North Carolina and Virginia, Rivermont Capital, Enterprise Community Partners, and Beekman Advisors capitalized enough funds to invest in five cities, but ultimately aim to spur dynamic growth and track outcomes in 10 cities within the next 15 years.

Incentives that reward long-term investment, such as Opportunity Zones, are an important ingredient to the Fund’s prospective success. Based on the turnaround stories of communities like Durham, the partners behind the Fund estimate it can take 15 years to see signs of recovery after decades of decline. Because investors must keep their holdings in Opportunity Zone funds for 10 years to maximize their tax advantage, OZs are a critical tool to attract and scale the long-term capital that’s needed to revitalize many communities across the nation.

Commitment to measurement and outcomes

Measuring progress towards positive outcomes are essential for equitable and effective OZ investments. To understand whether the Remergent Fund, and others like it, unlock dynamic growth in the next 10 years, it’s important to track quantitative metrics such as those listed in the IRIS + Catalogue or as captured on platforms such as City Builder by CitiBank. Additionally, qualitative metrics, such as resident testimonials, will help investors better understand their impact in OZs.

Transformation becomes reality in Kannapolis

Years before the Remergent Fund or Opportunity Zones, Kannapolis city leaders were already forging a new future for their city. Mike Legg took over as Kannapolis City Manager in 2004, just a year after the closing of Cannon Mills. Having lived in the town since 1995, Mike witnessed the plant’s steady decline but did not expect it to disappear in a single day. “It was a body blow to the community,” Mike reflected. “The social impacts were devastating.”

Soon after its closing, the mills’ owner, David Murdock, partnered with the state and the University of North Carolina to convert part of the plant into the North Carolina Research Campus, a 350-acre laboratory designed to contribute to the region’s growing life sciences sector. The city realized that for the Research Campus to become an anchor that sparks community growth, Kannapolis needed a revitalized downtown.

Through active engagement with residents, the city realized that the community was eager to see the historic downtown occupied and vibrant once again. In 2015, the City Council negotiated the purchase of most of its downtown from Murdock. “As far as I know, no city our size or larger has bought its entire downtown,” says Mike. With this purchase, the city’s downtown revitalization strategy was underway.

artist rendering of 1085 Vida Kannapolis project
Artist rendering of 1085 Vida Kannapolis project. Courtesy Kaufman Lynn Construction

Kannapolis also benefited from its proximity to Charlotte, one of the nation’s fastest growing regions and home to expanding finance, banking, and research industries. While this proximity brought jobs to Kannapolis, many of the residents most affected by the plant closure do not have college degrees and worry about the availability of job opportunities. But there are, however, some signs for optimism. In response to concerns, the local community college system is expanding training options for residents and some companies have announced plans to open up shop in Kannapolis. Amazon, for example, will open a distribution plant that will initially offer 600 jobs and another 600 jobs in the years to come.

While steadfast local leadership and some external factors have fueled Kannapolis’ transformation to-date, the community needed commitment from the private sector to reach its full potential. Recognizing this, the Remergent Fund – powered by the Opportunity Zone incentive – backed a $58 million residential development in the heart of downtown. With nearly 300 housing units and a 420 car parking deck, the space will cater to downtown’s growing demands.

Lessons Learned

While Kannapolis’ journey is far from over, the effort so far has yielded valuable lessons for how strong public-private partnerships can inject new life into a community:

Opportunity to Impact: An Investment Assessment*

The Centre for Public Impact – alongside its advisors at Georgetown’s Beeck Center – set out to better understand the process of generating positive community impact through private investment and development. The resulting tool, Opportunity to Impact, is a simple, yet rigorous guide for evaluating an investment project’s potential for positive impact. Some of the findings from this research is embedded in the section below.

Revitalization is hard, but it is worth it

The path from decline to vibrancy is long, difficult, and often un-guaranteed. Raising capital to jump-start this process has been challenging for the Remergent Fund. “We focus on communities that are significantly under-performing relative to their market potential, but no one wants to assume the risk if they’re surrounded by boarded up buildings,” notes Andrew Holton, Managing Principal of Rivermont Capital. Until recently, convincing large institutional investors to buy into this mission was particularly challenging. But given their scale, institutional investors are essential to actualizing the small cities thesis around the nation. “The Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group is proud to be part of the revitalization story in Kannapolis, in close partnership with the City and other partners like Enterprise [Community Investment],” says Margaret Anadu, Goldman Sachs Partner and head of the Urban Investment Group. “We believe that with sustained private and public sector investment, combined with a clear vision, communities like Kannapolis are poised to reach their potential and see widely shared economic growth. We are honored to be a partner in this important project.”

On the government side, Mike has learned the importance of translating a vision to generate buy-in from his many stakeholders (e.g. residents, the City Council, community leaders). This requires skill and grit. Though these efforts are not easy, Kannapolis’ and Durham’s stories reveal the potential of perseverance.

Strong public-private-partnerships are built on transparency and communication

Peter Flotz is the developer overseeing Kannapolis’ downtown revitalization projects. He credits downtown’s success, in large part, to a transparent relationship with the city government. “We didn’t wait until the flames were licking at the roof to say we smelled smoke. We told Mike everything,” Peter shared. This type of relationship does not always exist between local governments and developers. “I’ve worked with hundreds of developers over the years and I’ve never experienced anything like this,” says Mike. “We realized that we were never going to get this to work unless we had frank and honest conversations with each other.”

It’s also important to have an open relationship and regularly engage with the public. In a 2018 PBS interview, Kannapolis Mayor Darrell Hinnant candidly responded to the residents who hoped that their city’s new downtown would look like the old downtown. The Mayor remarked, “the reality is that it is not going to be like it used to be. It’s going to be something totally different … but it is going to have lots of jobs, it’s going to have lots of activity.” Managing expectations among the many people with vested interest in a community requires openness and honesty.

Looking Ahead

Some may argue that the stories of Durham and Kannapolis are anomalies. How many communities have a Duke University or a single owner willing to sell downtown back to a city?

While each community faces unique circumstances, the small cities thesis aims to prove that creating vibrant downtowns in places with the ingredients for renewal does not have to be anomalous. As small cities grapple with the devastation of COVID-19, they will need sparks to ignite an equitable recovery. While a spark can come in many forms, a deliberate partnership among residents, government, and the private sector is what transforms a spark into a vibrant and inclusive city center.

Jen Collins is a Fellow-in-Residence for the Beeck Center. Follow her on Twitter @JenCollins24

Ryan Goss is a Senior Associate at the Centre for Public Impact, where his work focuses on helping governments and their partners improve people’s economic mobility and flourish over time. Follow him on Twitter @R_Goss1

April 20, 2020 | By Alberto Rodrìguez Álvarez and Margarita Arguello

Have you ever needed a copy of your birth certificate, but realized it was stuck in a box hundreds of miles away? Or have you forgotten your wallet at home, only to need your ID for something? These are common problems around the world, and as digital technology is improving, governments are setting innovation hubs to develop groundbreaking solutions to broaden their reach and streamline the delivery of citizen services. 

From digitizing medical records to creating entire government portals, public sector technologists are continuously working to incorporate data and design into their operations. They are applying agile methods learned from the tech industry to deliver better services and using human-centered design techniques to transform programs and services. And they are doing this all over the world. Over the past several months, we conducted in-depth research in our home region of Latin America to better understand and document two case studies showing digital government transformation in action: digitizing driver’s licenses in Argentina and digitizing birth certificates in Mexico. These efforts show that other nations are ahead of the United States, and demonstrate that innovative solutions are available from a variety of sources.

One of the co-authors discusses Argentina’s Digital Drivers License during her 2019 Capstone Presentation

Our case studies were conducted as part of the Beeck Center’s Digital Service Collaborative, a project in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, and describe both the political transformations that accompany new digital services, as well as the services themselves.

In both case studies, while the design and execution of the specific digital services is the focus of the reports, we also describe the broader digital transformation strategies that were needed for these national governments to take major digitization efforts to two services that touch most, if not all, residents in a society.

cover of online birth certificate case study
Download the Online Birth Certificate Case Study

Argentina and Mexico are two of many countries that have begun national digital transformation efforts and enabling these innovations has required diverse strategies. Some countries started by embedding small teams into key offices with high-level political support, as is seen with the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the UK (part of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office), or the U.S. Digital Service team embedded in the White House. These teams have successfully deployed digital service solutions with both national and local governments copying their models. 

We have also seen councils and committees formed across national governments with digital mandates, like in Estonia and Finland, who jointly launched the first international data exchange between commercial business registers and are renowned for their digital government efforts.

In Latin America, there is a middle ground. Countries have created ad-hoc ministries and agencies with broad directives to drive digital transformation efforts. Uruguay’s AGESIC and Brazil’s Secretariat of Digital Government are great examples of teams that are implementing national digital systems like digital identification and digital government dashboards. Latin America is also at the forefront of international cooperation among digital governments, with the Digital Government Network of Latin America convening annually for digital ministries to share best practices. 

cover of Digital Drivers License Case Study
Download the Digital Driver’s License Case Study

Despite these successes, in order to have successful results, governments everywhere need to overcome internal barriers to innovation such as outdated practices, restrictive regulatory frameworks, and resistance to change by public servants and decision makers. It is not uncommon to see failed deployment of digital technologies because governments have not undertaken the reforms and negotiations needed to introduce tools that are already standard in other sectors. Public innovation is not only achieved by using new technologies, but by understanding the particular obstacles that every political ecosystem must overcome to enable transformational change. 

Overcoming political barriers should be as important a priority as any final innovation product; since it provides a sort of multiplier effect. When government innovation hubs succeed in this, they transform the underlying legal and political frameworks of agencies and offices and open the door to further digital services. These teams set rules, standards, and even interoperability schemas along their process, which then create roadmaps for future innovation everywhere. 

Alberto Rodrìguez Álvarez is a Beeck Center Student Analyst currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter at @arodalv

Margarita Arguello is a Beeck Center Student Analyst currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown University.

Photo by Hector Iván Patricio Moreno on Unsplash