Stillman College, the historically Black college founded in 1870, has an ambassador extraordinaire: its choir, which tours across the country and often brings its audiences to tears. Its performances have changed lives.

Bob Herrema still remembers a performance of the Messiah in 1969, when he and a fellow church member organized a combined performance, with the Stillman Choir and string students from the University of Alabama. Before Herrema raised his baton, he turned to look at the audience – and saw Stillman’s Brown Chapel filled with faces of all colors. Before the performance was over, some would be in tears.

Stillman College choir in robes sing onstage
The Stillman College choir performs. Credit: Stillman College

“Stillman turned out to have an impact for the rest of my life,” he says. Herrema, who is white, had arrived at the school to take the job knowing how good the music of the Black tradition was. He left knowing how easily people could connect across race through music, and how much they would be moved by the connection. For the rest of his long career as a professor and a chorus leader, most of it in Pennsylvania, he incorporated composers like Moses Hogan in the repertoire.

The choir’s power has resonated many times over the years for others, says Jocqueline Richardson, an alumna and the choir’s director. “When we sang Somebody’s Praying – when we sang that in St. Charles, a church that was in Hurricane Katrina, you understand, the members were crying.”

There are about 40 choir members; a more select group tours each year. Richardson ticks off other performances that were meaningful, including one in the church where former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is a member. The choir’s tour of churches near San Francisco included performances of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, O Freedom, and I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, among others.

The repertoire, she believes, is key. It consists of, among many others, Handel’s Messiah and Ernani Aguiar’s Salmo 150, and spirituals arranged by William Dawson and Moses Hogan. The choir has the diction, talent and passion to move across the traditions and give each one equal weight.

Charlie Mitchell, a student in the 1970s, went on to get a PhD in music and became a music leader, now in Louisville, Kentucky. Herrema remembers him as a tall, lanky young man, with his sleeves too short. “I found him at the piano one day, saying “This is the music I want to play,” remembers Herrema, who introduced the choir to such hymns as Give Ear To My Word – a phrase Mitchell remembers to this day as foreign to his.


Watch the Stillman Choir perform at Westminster Presbyterian Church – Birmingham, Ala., February 3, 2019

Today, Mitchell, who is an organist, plays Bach in the same performances as Ulysses Kaye. At a performance in southern Indiana, he focused on the work of composers from the African diaspora, such as Ulysses Kaye, Florence Price and Fela Sowanda. A nationally known organist came up to him afterwards, and somewhat stiffly, but warmly, said the concert had been “well received.”

“I figured I’d arrived then,” says Mitchell with a laugh. “I grew up on a farm in rural Alabama. My people were farmers. The choir at Stillman and the touring we did … singing in those churches, listening to the organ, showed me what you could do with music.”


Learn more about Stillman College, and how it’s working with investment and development firms to use real estate assets to generate revenue, catalyze economic development in underserved areas, and provide workforce training for their student populations in Part 2 of our Impact in Action series, Untapped Assets: Stillman College And The Landscape Of HBCUs.


September 3, 2020 – By Elizabeth MacBride

At the South Jersey Technology Park, a garden plot is being grown with some of the tastiest (and hottest) varieties of peppers, from long hots and beaver dams to ghost peppers and the scorpion butch.

The plot is tended by students at nearby Rowan University, which helped develop the Tech Park, and by Ali Houshmand, president of Rowan. Houshmand has been growing peppers and making his own special recipe of hot sauce for years. After the sauce became popular among family and friends, Houshmand decided to create a bottled version to sell as a fundraising tool for student scholarships. Asked by the university’s marketers to describe how it tastes, Houshmand said, “It’s nasty hot.”

The entrepreneurial venture, Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauce, makes three varieties: Ali’s Nasty, Nastylicious and Nastyvicious.

bottles of hot sauce with flames behind them
Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauces

Houshmand collaborated with the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton to get the hot sauces to market. They’re sold through the university’s website, for $10 a jar, along with swag like t-shirts and pint glasses.

case study cover of Rowan University: A Blue-Collar Soul
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The company has earned over $130,000 in revenue that has been used for emergency scholarships for students at Rowan University who experience an unexpected financial crisis or need. With other donations, the scholarship fund has disbursed more than $3 million in assistance since its founding in 2016.

More than 65% of all Rowan undergraduates receive need-based financial aid.

“I grew up in a poor family with nine brothers and sisters. My mother and father couldn’t read,” said Houshmand in an interview, who immigrated to England from Iran just before he went to college at the University of Essex. “I’ve been through a tough time.”

Houshmand said he is committed to giving students from working class families a first-rate education at Rowan. “Give me the kid from Camden with a single mother, the one whose roof leaks when it rains. The real honor and the real accomplishment is serving that kid,” he said.

The Technology Park is also home to a technology business incubator designed to support a broad range of startups, including those led by Rowan students. Most recently, two Rowan grads set up a company which designed a new kind of reusable flexible drinking straw. In the next few years, as the economy emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, entrepreneurship – both startups and an entrepreneurial mindset at institutions – will be crucial to recovery. Rowan has already frozen its tuition for next year and is seeking ways to reduce costs further for students. “We have to recognize that a lot of our families have gone through serious financial issues,” Houshmand said. “So how can I make this easier? Increase the need-based scholarships.”

One pepper at a time.

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)
4.3%6.5%6.8%
Net New Businesses Growth7.6%35.2%34.4%
Labor Market Engagement

Composite metric that measures employment, labor force participation, and % with bachelor degree
13%19.8%23.8%
Minority / Women-owned Business

As a percentage of all businesses
3.2%5.1%5.2%
*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
31.9%-0.7%20.1%
Overall Spend Growth

Growth of spending overall
73.4%19.2%12.7%
*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