Getting on board: A conversation with Presley Gillespie

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Community Progress is pleased to welcome two new members to our Board of Directors: Scot Spencer, Associate Director for Advocacy and Influence at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Presley Gillespie, Executive Director of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation. We recently spoke with Mr. Gillespie about his work and life in Youngstown, Ohio, the transcript of which is below. We look forward to sharing an interview with Mr. Spencer in a future newsletter.

Community Progress: Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC) is a relatively young organization. What was the impetus to get it off the ground?

Presley Gillespie: The impetus to get it off the ground was the need to create a new and innovative public-private partnership between the City of Youngstown and The Raymond John Wean Foundation after the completion of the Youngstown 2010 plan. The vision of the plan was essentially to look at Youngstown as a shrinking city, a city that was shrinking in population, however the city leadership felt that it could be a stronger, healthier city – a more resilient city. After the adoption of the plan, although it was a great vision, there was the realization that there wasn’t the human and financial capital needed to implement it.

The former Mayor of Youngstown was Jay Williams, and the former president of the Foundation was Joel Ratner. Both have now moved on, but they came together and recognized that there was a need to improve the community development infrastructure and community development capacity in Youngstown. The second thing was that, in the 2010 plan, there was not dedicated human capital or financial capital to really begin to effectively implement some of the strategies. So the YNDC was formed through a public-private partnership between the City and The Raymond John Wean Foundation. We began professional operations in late 2009.

CP: What sort of work does YNDC do?

Boys & Girls Club of Youngstown.

Boys & Girls Club of Youngstown.

PG: YNDC is a multifaceted, citywide neighborhood development organization or, we sometimes say, community development corporation that was formed to catalyze strategic investments in neighborhoods throughout the city of Youngstown. From the very beginning, our approach has been different. It’s much more strategic, comprehensive, and holistic than traditional CDC work has been in Youngstown, but there are several themes and hallmarks of our approach:

  • We’re very performance-based, so our work is driven by understanding that we have to deliver results to our stakeholders, our funders, our residents
  • We have a very strong belief and intentional effort to layer partnerships. Breaking down the silos is a huge part of what we endeavor to do. Really catalyzing partnerships and resources so we can have a more collective impact, as opposed to isolated impact.
  • Another hallmark of our strategy and one of our top priorities is keeping residents at the center of our work. Grassroots engagement is a critical piece and really drives our work. Empowering residents to build their own capacity to not only manage their own day-to-day challenges but really be able to invest their own time, energy and resources into their neighborhoods: we believe that’s critical.
  • And really, strategically focusing our resources to get the most long term sustainable and visible impact.

One thing I want to emphasize is we believe our major product is impact. Driving impact and driving results in our neighborhoods.

CP: You became Executive Director of YNDC after a career in banking. What inspired you to switch to the nonprofit world?

PG: I spent my 22-year career primarily focused on serving urban markets and underserved markets and working to improve the social and economic conditions of my community. My 20 years in banking really allowed me to develop my institutional skills around financial and organizational performance. It allowed me to understand the real estate sector very well, both the commercial and residential markets, and at the same time allowed me to provide the critical and very scarce capital to catalyze neighborhood and community and economic development projects throughout northeast Ohio. That was very satisfying, but what I began to realize was that I had a deeper interest and desire to work more in the grassroots sector and have a deeper impact on-the-ground in neighborhoods. So I began to consider what’s next in my career and really I believe my unique combination of for-profit and nonprofit management experience together with my knowledge of community engagement, banking, and real estate has enabled me to lead YNDC in developing a proactive and high-impact strategy to rebuild the vitality of our communities.

CP: What would you like people who have never been to Youngstown to know about the city?

PG: First of all, Youngstown is a city that has tremendous momentum and we are a city that has truly gone from inspiration to implementation of new ideas, new strategies, around making our city a more resilient city that’s rich with social and economic opportunities. I would want people to know that our neighborhoods are on a very positive trajectory, engagement is at an all time high – as evidenced by the sheer numbers of volunteers and stakeholders that are getting involved in our work – and our real estate markets are beginning to show signs of improvement – as evidenced by the fact that, as YNDC acquires and renovates vacant housing, there’s growing interest among people to purchase those homes. So we are seeing signs of improved demand in our neighborhoods, which is exactly what we’re intending to accomplish.

CP: What’s an example of an exciting reuse of vacant or abandoned land you’ve seen in Youngstown?

Iron Roots Urban Farm

Iron Roots Urban Farm

PG: Probably one of the most profound examples is what we’ve done ourselves with the Iron Roots Urban Farm. Iron Roots is a 1.7 acre property that we acquired about 2 years ago that also has a 3000-square-foot, old, abandoned, historic home on the site. Through the acquisition of this property, we’ve created a true working farm and urban revitalization center. We have a staff and we also have a number of different residents and stakeholders from some of our programs.

We have a Market Gardener training program where we teach urban agricultural skills and entrepreneurial skills […] In addition, it’s providing access to healthy foods, as most of our neighborhoods are food deserts, which means they don’t have access to fresh, locally grown healthy foods. Our Market Gardener training program has graduated 75 market gardeners to date and those individuals can now work and volunteer at the urban farm.

The farm itself is a full-fledged working farm. We grow produce that is now sold in at least four farmers markets. We also work with several youth development organizations to provide workforce training and agricultural landscaping training. As part of the urban farm, we’re building a kitchen production and training center which will be used for packaging the produce […] and other programming designed to increase awareness of healthy foods, healthy cooking, and healthy eating in our neighborhoods.

The house on the property has been turned into community space as well as our headquarters. It’s now the home of our operations. This site took up almost a whole block so we removed nearly an entire block of blight by redeveloping this site. It’s on a highly traveled artery leading into the downtown, so it’s a very visible location and our redevelopment of the site has removed a tremendous amount of blight.

Rehabbed home now a community space and HQ.

Rehabbed home now a community space and HQ.

We have a full, professional business plan for the farm that we consulted with a CEO of a very well-known farm in Cleveland on, with financial projections and a marketing analysis: so we did our homework. Secondly, the farm is really not just a farm. I would call it a multifaceted urban agricultural training and neighborhood revitalization center. We partnered with another nonprofit organization that does business incubation around food-based businesses, and the plan is for us to collectively create over 45 jobs in the food-based business sector over the next 5 years. This is post-industrial economic development.

CP: How did you first encounter Center for Community Progress?

PG: I first encountered Center for Community Progress right after I joined YNDC. It became evident that Community Progress was one of the finest national organizations that was addressing national issues around vacant property. It was addressing things like advocacy, policy, providing technical assistance to a variety of public and private organizations across the country and it became very clear that this was an organization doing very good work.

I was thrilled when Tamar Shapiro invited me to join the board leadership of an organization as far-reaching as the Center for Community Progress. Your thought leadership, your technical expertise, and your track record of institutionalizing strong partnerships and networks across the United States is exemplary and at the same time, I am honored to have an opportunity to contribute, as well as bring back additional best practices to Youngstown on developing tools to reintegrate vacant and blighted properties into the economic and civic life of our communities. It’s a great opportunity and I’m thrilled. I think it will be a great partnership.

All photos courtesy of Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation.