Back in March, a team of municipal and community leaders from New Jersey were fortunate enough to participate in Community Progress’ Leadership Institute in Cambridge. While representatives from Jersey City, Orange, Irvington, Newark, and Millville were able to take part in this great learning experience, there was also tremendous interest from leaders from a number of other communities. To make this opportunity to focus on creative ways to turn vacant properties into community assets available to a wider range of NJ municipalities, the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey decided to offer a New Jersey specific version of the Institute here in Trenton last week.
Cities and towns invited to participate in the Summer Institute for Community Leadership were those that have shown a commitment to neighborhood revitalization, and have either begun to implement systems reforms for problem properties or have indicated an interest in doing so. In July, city officials and community development leaders representing thirteen NJ cities (including the original five) converged in Trenton prepared to tackle the vacant and abandoned properties challenges that affect each of their cities.
Attendees were enthusiastic about not only learning strategies for reclaiming these problem properties, but also in sharing what has and hasn’t worked in their own communities. They not only heard from experts on data systems, code enforcement, and reuse planning, but attendees themselves lead discussions courtesy of event facilitator J Otis Smith, whose energetic style encouraged working groups to dive deep into problems and solutions facing their cities.
The Summer Institute for Community Leadership’s goal was to help equip these communities to transform themselves into thriving places again, drawing on the significant resources in institutional and human capital that they already possess or are able to marshal. The Institute was designed in part to help participants shape strategies that foster the creation of homes and jobs in economically and environmentally viable places that have good access to transit and the other civic resources that these cities possess or can develop.
This event gave participants much to absorb, and armed them with new tools to get started on transforming their communities. However, by the end, many were asking “what next?” Based on overwhelming interest, the Network plans to once again partner with the Center for Community Progress to host another session in the fall, this time focused primarily on land banking. Land banks seem to be a tool gaining traction across the country, and many Summer Institute participants felt they could be viable for their cities.
If the Summer Institute for Community Leadership has shown us anything, it’s that there is a strong desire and willingness to put new tools into practice that can help transform New Jersey communities into thriving places to live and work. Leaders understand that to do so begins in their own backyards, and are prepared to commit themselves to the hard work that lies ahead.
To view photos and videos from the Summer Institute for Community Leadership, visit the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/hcdnnj. Check out a news story on “abandominiums” in the City of Trenton, a Summer Institute participant.
Nina Arce is with the Housing and Community Development Network of NJ