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LISC helps Indy help itself 

With help from LISC, the Near East Side Legacy Center serves the neighborhood.
  • With help from LISC, the Near East Side Legacy Center serves the neighborhood.

From his perch on the upper floor of a vintage office building on Pennsylvania St., Bill Taft can see past downtown's Mile Square, to where some of the city's other neighborhoods begin.

Taft is Executive Director of the Indianapolis branch of LISC, Local Initiative Support Corporation, a national organization dedicated to helping distressed neighborhoods gain the traction necessary to find a new lease on life.

"If our core neighborhoods are going to be vibrant, we're going to have to learn to live in them in a way that's appealing," says Taft. "It can't be a problem-based approach. It has to be based on a vision."

Taft is tall and slightly stooped, with a twinkle in his eye. He has the look of a man who has a hard time believing there's such a thing as a comfortable dress shirt.

Before Taft joined LISC, he was head of the Southeast Neighborhood Development Corporation, SEND. He spent his days walking the streets in and around Fountain Square and played a major role in turning that neighborhood into a recognized destination and cultural district.

Now Taft is applying his street-level expertise to neighborhoods throughout the city, including the Near Eastside and Mid-North, where a constellation of six district neighborhoods — Crown Hill, Highland Vicinity, Historic Meridian Park, Mapleton-Fall Creek, Meridian Highland and Watson-McCord — are collaborating on a transformative Quality of Life plan.

It was Taft who originally pitched the idea of turning the Near Eastside's Quality of Life plan into the Legacy Project that became the lynchpin of the city's successful Super Bowl bid.

LISC seems an ideal platform for Taft's talents. It's a behind-the-scenes intermediary and facilitator that is often the first to invest money in fledgling neighborhood redevelopment projects. In Indianapolis, LISC makes grants of about $1.5 million a year, and loans ranging from $50,000 to $5 million to community-based organizations.

"By the time people get to the completion of a project, they've forgotten we were involved," Taft says. This seems to please him.

click to enlarge Bill Taft is Executive Director of LISC. - BRANDON KNAPP

Building bridges

Anyone who has ever attended more than one community planning meeting is probably familiar with the sinking feeling that comes when people realize their reach has exceeded what they can actually grasp. Where will the money come from to make their ideas a reality? Who has the connections necessary to make things happen?

LISC is designed to bridge this gap. On the one hand, LISC helps government policymakers and grantmakers better understand how community organizations like community centers, civic associations and community development corporations operate. It can help them identify opportunities and provide reassurance about quality control.

At the same time, LISC helps community organizations develop systems to track expenses, provide financial accountability and institute good governance practices.

"We have a foot in both worlds and try to help each side see each others' perspectives," says Taft.

In its early days, LISC, created by the Ford Foundation, was primarily a lender, borrowing large sums from banks and insurance companies based in New York City, and layering in additional funds from national foundations to offset any risks.

"That allowed LISC to make loans the banks never would have made," says Taft. "We could develop analytic underwriting approaches that actually fit the reality of community-based organizations. So we weren't freaking out about things that weren't real risks, but also were trying to see where those real risks were."

This reality-based approach, derived from experience on the ground, enabled LISC to carve a niche for itself as an early lender during what, to outsiders, appeared to be the riskiest stages of community development projects.

The stages, that is, that turned projects from nothing into something.

LISC now has offices in 30 cities across the country, as well as in 30 rural areas. It opened its Indianapolis office in 1992. LISC raises half its money locally. The other half is generated through grants from national foundations and the federal government. On a national level, LISC invests over $1 billion every year, primarily in low-income communities on projects Taft describes as "very tough to pull off."

click to enlarge Tabernacle Presbyterian is another local initiative sparked by LISC.
  • Tabernacle Presbyterian is another local initiative sparked by LISC.

The Near Eastside story

In Indianapolis, LISC began by developing affordable apartments. Eventually it branched out, adopting what Taft calls a more "holistic" approach.

"The real mission is to rebuild a quality of life," Taft says of LISC's approach to neighborhood revitalization, "that then makes people choose to live there, choose to invest there, choose to shop there. What it takes to get to that goal varies from neighborhood to neighborhood."

In the past, the idea of "urban renewal" held sway in city halls and planning offices. Urban planners looked at various sections of their cities and determined what they thought would be most desirable. The results were top-down projects that were imposed upon communities, rather than embraced. Not surprisingly, they were often freighted with unanticipated negative consequences.

"Outsiders can't do it," Taft says of this kind of approach. "It doesn't work and it's wrong."

LISC works with neighborhood stakeholders — residents, business owners, neighborhood associations and others — to develop Quality-of-Life plans. Hundreds of people are convened to begin a process of hashing out and coming to agreement about what the neighborhood's assets are and how these assets can serve as the basis for a vision of what the neighborhood seeks to accomplish in coming years. The plan identifies who, what, when, as well as where these accomplishments will take place.

It becomes a living guide for neighborhood progress.

In 2005, LISC worked with the John H. Boner Community Center to help form the Near Eastside Collaborative Taskforce in order to address quality-of-life issues in that neighborhood. Over 500 participants spent over 1,000 volunteer hours in planning meetings, mapping community assets, interviewing residents and other stakeholders, and creating action teams. Lead partners included local schools, churches, healthcare organizations and financial institutions.

This planning had been underway for a year when Taft learned that the Super Bowl bid committee was looking for what they called a Legacy Project. He called the bid committee's chairman, Mark Miles, and pitched the Near Eastside project.

"Because the groups had spent a year getting organized and doing the plan together, and had a strong convening organization for that process in the Boner Center, [the Super Bowl bid committee] was really impressed by the neighborhood and their readiness to be a good partner," recalls Taft.

But establishing this relationship was a two-way street. Taft says the planning process also convinced the neighborhood "they had a big vision and needed help to get it done. So they were prepared to say, 'Hey, this is what we want to see happen. As long you're willing to help us get that done, come in and be our partner.' That was the value of that plan. It allowed that to be the framework of the relationship."

The National Football League loved the idea. It became a major reason for Indianapolis' successful Super Bowl bid. In the past three years, the Near Eastside Quality-of-Life plan has attracted $150 million of investment, only $2 million of which came from the NFL; LISC has accounted for $16 million. Much of the rest of has come from financial institutions, utilities, insurance investors and foundations.

"This has really been encouraging and it's made us realize we have to think bigger in the sense of how we connect core neighborhood revitalization as a top level civic activity in Indianapolis," says Taft. "It's right up there with any other economic priority. Just like downtown was a focus, we feel this next ring of neighborhoods that have seen a lot of disinvestment and loss of population is the next big urban challenge for the city."

GINI: Making great neighborhoods

The Near Eastside process grew out of LISC's Great Indy Neighborhoods Initiatives, GINI. The Near Eastside was one of six demonstration neighborhoods where LISC helped to facilitate a planning process with buy-in from residents, government, businesses and community development organizations. The Mid-North Quality-of-Life plan, involving six contiguous neighborhoods, bounded by 38th St., Fall Creek Parkway, 21st St. and Martin Luther King, Jr. St. is currently underway.

Taft says that GINI grew from the recognition that affordable housing wasn't always the leading priority in all neighborhoods. GINI, he says, "was designed to reconnect community development to its roots with more people involved as a kind of populist movement."

GINI got people talking with one another who, in some cases, hadn't communicated for ages. The process massaged away turf barriers between such entities as community centers and neighborhood organizations, specialized nonprofits and business groups.

"Even in the same neighborhood they don't necessarily talk to each other or have shared goals," says Taft. "The quality-of-life plan gets them to sit down together and develop some shared goals, then parse that out in terms of specific activities and who's going to take responsibility."

These goals and activities are not meant to be a wish list. "We're pretty action-oriented and results-oriented," says Taft. "We track results."

According to LISC, the GINI process has involved six quality-of-life planning areas on all sides of the city, encompassing 83 neighborhoods and 175,000 people. Over 1,400 volunteers have dedicated more than 6,000 hours to developing plans that focus on 18 neighborhood issues with 544 actionable objectives guided by 85 lead parties and hundreds of partners. So far, GINI has leveraged $105 million in community development funds that have led to such accomplishments as the creation of a new $12 million Kroger on the Northeast side, the Hawthorne Center for Working Families on the Westside and a resident-led Building Blocks for Affordability project on the Southwest side.

"You have to invest in community building for it to be strong," says Taft, "particularly in neighborhoods that have had a hard time. If they're going to compete again as far as attracting people, they're going to need to play to their strengths — walkability and mixed use — again."

Taft notes that Center Township has lost 70 percent of its population since 1950. This presents a challenge to the vision of a new, urban Indy, particularly to the sustainability of our resurgent Downtown. "Downtown can only rise so far," says Taft, "if it's surrounded by deteriorating neighborhoods."

For Taft, this challenge also represents an opportunity to create a distinctively new, urban Indy, a city that builds on such assets as Greenways and riverine corridors, reconnects schools with neighborhoods and figures out how to bring back public transit.

"These neighborhoods were built on transit," he says. "If we could connect them to high-quality transit again, that would be another competitive advantage over living in a former cornfield.

"There aren't enough resources in these neighborhoods for them to do this alone," Taft continues. "There needs to be a stepped-up community investment. That might be bank lending, it might be government infrastructure investment, it might be improvement of the schools. All these things, along with better policing, need to happen.

"But if we can create loan products and incentives for people to live in urban neighborhoods, we could actually turn that around and see an opportunity to put together an appealing pitch as to why you'd want to live in an urban neighborhood — and have the practical supports to back that up."

click to enlarge Leigh Riley Evans is Executive Director of Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood. - BRANDON KNAPP
  • Leigh Riley Evans is Executive Director of Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood.
  • Brandon Knapp

Six Neighborhoods, One Vision: The Mid-North Quality-of-Life plan

Leigh Riley Evans, the recently named Executive Director of the Mapleton-Fall Creek Development Corporation, knows her community well. She grew up here. Although she moved away for a time, her parents have lived in the same house since the 1970s. Three years ago, Riley Evans returned to raise her own family here.

"I immediately reached out to see where I could plug in and there were multiple opportunities that I wasn't aware of growing up," she says.

Riley Evans was impressed by the increased collaboration she saw across racial lines. "I think people decided they're no longer interested in the perception being this is not a safe or enjoyable or welcoming place to live or work or do business and they decided to come together and change that perception."

That gathering has taken form through the Mid-North Quality-of-Life Plan, an ambitious collaboration involving six neighborhoods: Crown Hill, Highland Vicinity, Historic Meridian Park, Mapleton-Fall Creek, Meridian Highland and Watson-McCord.

These neighborhoods form a kind of triangle bounded by 38th St., Fall Creek Parkway, Martin Luther King, Jr. St. and 21st St. Although their geographic proximity to one another suggests they might have a lot in common, none have collaborated significantly before — certainly not to this extent.

LISC provided the impetus that got the various neighborhoods talking across their respective boundaries. It has also leveraged funding to help keep those meetings going.

"They give a sense of legitimacy to some of those dreams and concerns that residents may have been repeatedly asking for, but didn't have the form or the voice to project," Riley Evans says of LISC.

Home to The Children's Museum and Ivy Tech, Mid-North has the kind of built-in community assets that Mid-North planners think they can build upon. In fact, Riley Evans says The Children's Museum has served as the convener for the planning process.

That process began in the spring of 2010, with the formation of task forces and action teams across all six neighborhoods. Approximately 500 stakeholders were involved in identifying 120 action steps to be taken. Mapleton-Fall Creek, in partnership with Near North CDC, has taken a lead role in about one third of these items.

"Both of us encompass the Mid-North area," says Riley Evans of the partnership with Near North CDC. "We have our own geographic boundaries. But we realized we needed to go beyond those boundaries to impact all six neighborhoods."

LISC has convened conversations over dinners and lunches that have established strategic and work plans for the next two years. "They were able to validate that this group working on the comprehensive plan has the capacity to execute it," says Riley Evans. "They've taken a tremendous leap of faith, but they've also been actively engaged in insuring that the comprehensive plan incorporated all the necessary facets and the right lead partners."

Part of the process has required participants to sign a memorandum of understanding, pledging to follow through on certain agenda items. "It took a driver like LISC to say, 'Let's get together. Let's make this happen,'" says Riley Evans.

In the past, the individual agendas of various neighborhoods often overrode collaborative efforts, creating competition and diluting the ability to get things done. This contributed to an initial lack of trust the neighborhood had to overcome.

"It's difficult," says Riley Evans. "There were those moments when people had to figure out each other and what they could or couldn't do. There have been some heated exchanges. But we've all had one goal of a sustainable, improving community, regardless of creed or race or religious affiliation. We all have a common goal of creating a legacy."

Riley Evans says the Mid-North Quality-of-Life plan has benefited from the example set by the Near Eastside project. "The positive result of one quality-of-life plan has given us the credibility that this could also be done. It's also raised the bar for this group of planners. Though we don't have the synergy of the Super Bowl, it does say there is a possibility. We can see some dramatic impact if we all work together."

In addition to assets like The Children's Museum, Ivy Tech and the Crown Hill Cemetery park and grounds, Riley Evans believes that Mid-North has the considerable advantage of its close proximity to Downtown. "We're trying to bring families back to the neighborhoods to restore the sense of community," she says, adding that it makes more sense to improve existing surroundings than think in terms of pulling up stakes and going somewhere else.

"Historically, things were imposed," she says. "But we're the participants and that makes a big difference in the implementation because you've got engaged residents and, as a result of their engagement, they're invested. They want to see something happen and so they will continue to challenge politicians and challenge community development corporations and businesses to do what they should be doing to support the community. Now the hard work really begins. We have to take the steps to make everything real."

The partner across the street: Deputy Mayor Michael Huber

On the wall of Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Michael Huber's office in the City-County Building is a large photographic map with an aerial view of Indianapolis. Significant landmarks are identified, as are the gateways leading into various neighborhoods in the first ring around the Mile Square. Like LISC, the Ballard Administration is keen to extend the successes experienced on the Near Eastside to other parts of the city, like Mid-North.

Huber sits on LISC's board, an experience he says, that has enhanced his understanding of community development. "Working with them has made me appreciate how the process of convening, driving people toward common goals, become development projects. The Mid-North Quality-of-Life plan is a really good example of how neighborhood and community development is changing — and how it also changes the mayor's approach."

For Huber, the Super Bowl legacy project on the Near Eastside was a precedent-setting revelation: "What's powerful about the Near Eastside plan is how LISC and others were able to create a team of public, philanthropic and private players to focus on this limited geography because they had a Quality-of-Life plan that showed a path that could attract over $100 million in private investment. [LISC] brings people the ability to team up and make choices that would otherwise be very difficult. It's a very intentional act of focusing and targeting resources. It's very hard to do in terms of execution. What they've shown on the Near Eastside is when you take many different layers of financial and human capital and target them, you get this exponential benefit that would not have been possible if you tried to sprinkle those resources across a whole geography."

Huber believes LISC's approach brings what he calls "positive pressure" on local government. "Comprehensive community development only gets implemented if the city's public works people are working with the public safety people who are working with the land use and planning people who are working with the finance people," he says. "The LISC project managers are talented and typically know how to bring those pieces together."

According to Huber, LISC's greatest asset may be its sense of community savvy. "I'm most impressed with their ability to align the neighborhood residents and the big institutions. They can do that more effectively than local government... What sets them apart from a lot of nonprofits that do community development is they actually know something about how to get transactions done."

Caps on local property taxes and cuts to the Federal budget compel a city like Indianapolis to do more with fewer dollars. Huber says it also makes LISC's community-based model particularly relevant. "It's a tough economy. We saw a reduction in community bloc grant funds in the last Federal budget. In an era of shrinking resources, I think there's a greater acknowledgement for neighborhoods to create value by taking control and having a plan. Neighborhoods that have a plan and a shared vision are more able to effectively advocate."

This, says Huber, is where LISC comes in. "Some people think [of LISC] as an intermediary. Some think of them as a community organizer. Some people think of them as a development arm. They are all of the above. But the most important way we think of them is as the bridge between the neighborhood plan and the economic reality of what's possible."

Mayor Ballard, says Huber, has said the administration's role is to enable and help the local community to realize its vision. It's no wonder then that the mayor played a key part in making sure LISC will have a new office in the redeveloped west wing of the City Market, across the street from the mayor's headquarters in the City-County Building.

"That collaboration between the city and LISC is going to be more and more important," Huber says. "Our hope — and it's already happening — is that other neighborhoods are going to look at the Near Eastside model and say if we organize and create a plan, maybe we can be the subject of this kind of focus. Having LISC across the street from city government becomes really critical."

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