Ed Whitfield on why the “teach a man to fish” parable is a “mean spirited lie.”

Ed Whitfield at 2013 reRoute Conference

Ed Whitfield spoke on the opening panel of the reRoute conference in Boston a few weeks ago. He used his “water holes and fishin’ poles” metaphor to discuss how the current economic system we operate within is fundamentally designed to prevent communities from developing their own wealth and directing their own future.

You can view the entire panel discussion here, and more from the conference here.

Thanks to Eli Feghali of the New Economics Institute for editing this piece out of the longer panel discussion from reRoute.

A Pathway to Responsible Community Ownership of the Renaissance Center

Updated August 7, 2013

F4DC first published A Pathway to Responsible Community Ownership of the Renaissance Center in May 2013. Since that time, many of our elected leaders have indicated by vote and public comment that they are anxious to “get out of the shopping center business” as quickly as possible. Urgency to sell the Renaissance Center has led Council to consider a competing proposal that asks the City for $2 million in a 0% fully forgiveable loan.

In respect of the City’s urgency to sell the shopping center, we have updated this version of the Pathway to include a fourth scenario in which the Community Land Trust could purchase the Shopping Center as early as 2015, with the City playing a stronger financing role. We note, however, that the City’s financing role in this new scenario does not ask the City to make any forgivable loans. Every dollar will be paid back in this and all scenarios we discuss in this document. Why? Because we want the City to be able to replicate this approach to economic development in other parts of the community!

In addition, we have heard some Council members discuss the supportive rent arrangement that the Renaissance Community Cooperative (RCC) has sought from the City as a financially unsupportable burden that undercuts the viability of the shopping center. That may be true for a private developer seeking maximum return on investment, but the City’s interests, we believe, are more nuanced and community focused.

In this version of the Pathway, we are highlighting the fact that the supportive rent figure sought by the RCC enables the community to save up the money to purchase the shopping center from the City at Fair Market Value. In this context, the supportive rent figure isn’t a problem—it’s part of the solution, helping the community achieve its big picture dreams of community ownership, health, and wealth while providing the City with a responsible way to sell the shopping center to an entity that has the betterment of the community as its fundamental mission.


Executive Summary
The best option for ongoing community wealth building in Northeast Greensboro is for the City to allow the community to purchase the Renaissance Center. This document maps out several pathways to that end. Community ownership is made possible by the development of a Community Land Trust. This community-owned and controlled entity would buy the shopping center from the City using a combination of financing including accumulated profit from the operation of the Renaissance Community Coop, financing from Self-Help Credit Union and, in some scenarios, loan assistance from the City of Greensboro. Debt service would be repaid using the net operating income of the Center, leaving a balance of funds available to finance other community projects. This analysis includes provision for vacancy rates and fulfilling the existing lease agreement to Family Dollar Store.

Four scenarios of purchase and ownership are included, each having different dates for purchase of the property and retirement of all debt. Also analyzed is the rate and amount of accumulation of community wealth under each scenario. Spreadsheets are attached that summarize these scenarios. This document also looks at the process of preparation of the community to exercise the responsibilities of ownership through a Community Land Trust.

Our hope is that this document will illustrate possible pathways to community ownership of the Renaissance Center and help the City Council to be able to evaluate community ownership of the Renaissance Center as a serious option as they decide the fate of the Renaissance Center.

For more than a decade, residents of Northeast Greensboro have been faced with the run-down, nearly empty Renaissance Center (formerly the Bessemer Center). In its current decaying shape, the Renaissance Center is an eyesore and a symbol of economic desolation. The City of Greensboro, recognizing the need to turn this situation around, committed to improving the area. In 2008, the City purchased the Center, and then built the beautiful McGirt-Horton branch library on the front quarter of the property.

Extensive community discussions and negotiations with the City established several ways the community wished to see the balance of the buildings and property be put to use. Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro, Citizens for Economic and Environmental Justice (CEEJ) and others who participated in the many forums, charrettes and endless meetings believed that they were on the road to a vibrant, healthy facility that would meet a range of community needs, including a full-service grocery store, a health facility, job training, and other retail and commercial opportunities.

Sadly, these efforts to turn the shopping center around sputtered and stalled. Taking matters into their own hands, residents of Northeast Greensboro began working together to meet the long-standing community need for a full-service grocery store. They formed themselves into the Renaissance Cooperative Committee and are making great strides towards turning their dream into a reality. The Committee is on track to open the Renaissance Community Cooperative (RCC) Grocery Store by June of 2014. They completed a market study and pro forma business projections that establish the viability of the project. The market study and pro forma have been examined by experienced grocery professionals (Uplift Solutions) and lenders (Self Help) who believe that the RCC grocery store has real financial viability.[1]

The City is now contemplating whether to maintain ownership of the Renaissance Center or sell it to a private development group (with the RCC grocery in the mix either way). City Council is weighing which of these two paths will cost-effectively lead to a turn-around of the Center and the community’s economic fortunes. There are many factors to be weighed, including the question of whether it is feasible and appropriate for the City to own and operate a retail shopping center.

There are also questions about whether private ownership of the Center will lead to the kind of development the community wants—stores that meet real community needs and jobs that pay a decent wage—or whether private ownership will result in extractive “slum” type stores that do little in the way of providing jobs and building community wealth and health. The logic of profit as the sole business motivation creates these types of stores. This logic requires that businesses strive to make the maximum profit, taking advantage of every fad, prejudice, weakness and dependency existing in the neighborhood in order to sell at the highest allowable price while making the lowest possible expenditures on wages and benefits and providing as little upkeep and maintenance as possible to their facilities. In low-income neighborhoods, where there is little competition and a captive audience with limited transportation, slum-type businesses operating with profit as their sole motive need not worry about providing high quality goods and services.

There is a Third Option: Community Ownership

There is a third path, however: the community could buy the Renaissance Center and democratically own and control it, using it as a major asset to leverage on behalf of ongoing community wealth-building. Some people have raised concerns that this is not a realistic option, saying that the community is not now and will not soon become capable of purchasing or governing a shopping center. We at F4DC dispute this bleak view of the current and potential capability of the community. After working closely with the RCC Steering Committee and other Northeast Greensboro organizations for more than a year, we have a gained a good sense of the community’s current and emergent capabilities. We see a clear pathway to responsible community ownership of the Renaissance Center within the next two to ten years within a range of financial scenarios.

The Importance of Community Ownership
There are some who question why the City or the community should own the real estate in which community-owned businesses, like the RCC Grocery Store, operate. While the RCC Community and F4DC strongly prefer that the Renaissance Center be owned by the City until the community can buy the Center, the RCC Grocery Store could conceivably exist inside a shopping area and building owned by another developer, as is the case with Deep Roots. The reason that we think we should move down the path toward community ownership is because it is clearly better for the community. While community ownership comes with greater responsibility, it will create opportunities to stabilize the community, along with opportunities to create, accumulate and retain wealth that will improve the quality of life in the community for years to come. The ownership of the center is both a business opportunity and an opportunity to enhance the community in the following ways:

  • Community ownership will bring in revenues from the rental of business space to other businesses
  • Community ownership will allow the community to select which businesses are brought into the community and to decide which businesses are not welcomed there
  • By regulating rent structures (within the business limits of what is needed to handle the debt service), the community can offer incentives to particularly desirable tenants who will have a significant impact on the community, e.g., health facilities, job training facilities, community arts, recreation, culture, history, etc.

As important as it is to select good tenants, it is also important to exclude tenants that do not contribute to the community and instead extract the community’s limited wealth. Unhealthy fast food, predatory lending establishments, high priced rent-to-own centers, and speculative businesses such as sweep-stakes parlors that prey on community members’ economic uncertainty do not help the community reach its full potential. Even the provision of “creating jobs” doesn’t help very much if the jobs are at or near minimum wage and without benefits. A study done by economics professor Christopher Gunn of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, using standard industry data, shows that in a typical McDonald’s franchise the total surplus exceeds the payroll and of that surplus, more than 75% is taken out of the community (Reclaiming Capital, Cornell University Press, 1991, 28-29). In contrast, community ownership of the shopping center will ensure that the majority of the surplus generated by the co-op grocery and the shopping center will stay in the community. It will be controlled and managed by the people who live there, put back to work developing economic strength, quality of life, and general well-being that community desires. We think that creating good jobs and community wealth must be the objective of community economic development.

The City has a commitment to help alleviate some of the long-standing inequities that are evident in the disparities shown in numerous studies, including the recent parity study, and which are reflected in the lives of Greensboro residents. The city’s use of economic incentives for job creation along with its involvement with community redevelopment efforts are expressions of that commitment. Helping to create the democratic structure and the opportunity for ownership of the Renaissance Center as a hub of the economic life of this Northeast Greensboro community will be important steps on the road to parity.

Cities across the country are in similar positions. The current economic crisis increases the urgency of these efforts at equitable community development, but it did not create it. Greensboro will have the opportunity to be a model for other cities in answering a question on the minds of many: How can we best develop the economic and physical infrastructure that will allow all of our neighborhoods the chance and the means to help themselves?

The balance of this document attempts to responsibly tackle this big question in the specific context of Northeast Greensboro, by addressing three questions that collectively assess whether community ownership of the Renaissance Center is a viable option:

  1. Can the community raise the money to purchase the Renaissance Center?
  2. Are there viable forms of legal ownership and governance that would allow a community to responsibly and democratically own and operate a shopping center?
  3. How will the community gain the requisite capabilities to pull this off?

By answering these questions, we will map out multiple pathways to community ownership of the Renaissance Center so it can be evaluated as a serious option while the City Council makes up its mind about the fate of the shopping center.[2]

Question 1: Can the community raise the money to purchase the Renaissance Center?

Purchase Price of the Shopping Center

The first step in answering the question of whether the community can raise the money to purchase the shopping center is to establish an estimate of its purchase price. The City’s own studies show current fair market value (FMV) for the Renaissance Center at $490,000, though this may be merely an estimate of the residual value of the land following the sectioning off of the portion used by McGirt Horton Library. An April 2013 report prepared for the City by Michael Watts estimates a projected FMV of $1.9 million, should the City invest the roughly $2 million it is considering investing in improvements.

We assume the community’s purchase of the shopping center would take place after the City has made its improvements, so we will use Watt’s estimate of $1.9 million as the purchase price. Of course, if the Center takes off over the next few years and becomes a bustling, vibrant shopping destination filled with tenants paying high rents, the FMV will go up. That’s not the scenario we have data or experience with, so in this paper, we’ll not consider this as part of our analysis. Even if the FMV of the center goes higher, the rents that could be charged would go up accordingly, which would cover the debt service on extra financing needed to cover the increased purchase price.

We note that the City will consider its own public policy, fiscal, and statutory concerns in setting a purchase price for the Renaissance Center. Some of the relevant statutes require sale at FMV as determined by three independent appraisals, whereas others allow sale at a lower price, if certain public notice and public hearing requirements are met. For purposes of this analysis, we’ll work with the $1.9 million figure, which seems a fair estimate of FMV.

Financing the Purchase of the Shopping Center: Net Operating Income from Rental of the Shopping Center Goes to Debt Service

In all scenarios in which the community purchases the shopping center, the presumption is that the net operating income from the leasing of stores would be used to cover any debt service related to financing. In the attached spreadsheet, we do a quick-and-dirty, non-discounted, non-depreciated, non-inflated cash flow analysis where we calculate an annual net operating income, before debt service, of $91,414 per year. We based our revenue and expense figures on explicitly named assumptions drawn from the Michael Watts’ report and the May 20 proposal of New Bessemer Associates. With a healthy reserve of .35 per square foot included, we think our assumptions are conservative and responsible.

Financing the Purchase of the Shopping Center: Equity

To obtain the $1.9 million purchase price, the community would bring some amount of equity to the table, with the balance financed by Self Help Credit Union and, perhaps, the City.  In scenarios 1-3, the community would bring a minimum of $400,000 in equity, with the largest part of the equity stake coming from surpluses generated by the RCC grocery store. RCC’s cash flow analysis suggests that the RCC can contribute a minimum of $250,000 of surplus accumulated during the first five years after launch, and as much as $800,000 over ten years. In scenario 4, the “fast-purchase” scenario, there is less time for the RCC surplus to accumulate, so the community would bring $100,000 in equity, 20% of which comes from the RCC, and the balance from grassroots fundraising and grants.

The Role of the RCC Grocery Store in Capital Formation

It is important to highlight the important role of the RCC Grocery Store in the purchase and success of the overall plan for community ownership. In addition to being an anchor store that will attract other tenants to the Center, the RCC plays a critical role on the financing of the shopping center, specifically in providing equity for the down payment.

Within the RCC community, there is already a great deal of support for the longer-term goal of purchasing the Renaissance Center. Members of the RCC see ownership of the shopping center as good for the co-op as well as connected to the co-op’s larger mission of contributing to the community’s ongoing economic development, health, and well-being. There is explicit understanding that the supportive rent figure that the RCC is seeking ($2,000 per month, or $24,000 annually—$2.40 per square foot) is to be tied to community benefit, including using a portion of surplus to buy community-owned assets such as the Renaissance Center.

Some people have criticized the supportive rent figure for the RCC as a financially unsupportable burden that undercuts the viability of the shopping center as a business enterprise. That may be true if the shopping center is to be owned by a private developer seeking maximum return on investment, but neither the community nor the City as owners of the Renaissance Center have such a narrow interest. In fact, it is in both the City’s and the community’s interest to set the rent figure for the RCC at a level that ensures that the Center’s basic expenses are covered (“lost” property tax, maintenance, insurance) while allowing for the community to accumulate surplus at a faster rate.

In this context, the supportive rent figure isn’t a problem—it’s part of the solution, helping the community achieve its big picture dreams of community ownership, health, and wealth while providing the City with a responsible way out of the shopping center business.

Support from Foundations and Grassroots Fundraising

Rounding out the RCC’s contribution to equity, we are confident that we can raise additional funds in donations and grants from individuals as well as local, regional, and national foundations. In Scenarios 1-3, we estimate a minimum of $150,000 from foundations, individual donations, and government sources, such as the federal government’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative. In Scenario 4, the fast-purchase scenario, we do not have as much time to do the grant-seeking and fundraising, so this figure is smaller, at $80,000.

It may well be possible to raise considerably more financial support from foundations and government sources, which would be applied toward increasing the equity stake: there is a great deal of interest nationally and regionally in the use of community land trusts as a tool for turning around blighted areas and rebuilding local economies. However, in the interest of presenting responsible scenarios, we’re holding to the conservative range of $80,000 to $150,000 for donor, foundation, and government support.

Financing the Purchase of the Shopping Center – Lending

F4DC has had a preliminary conversation with Self-Help; they have indicated that they could bring financing of up to $1,500,000 into a deal in which the community purchases the shopping center from the City, holding the land and buildings as collateral.

While Self-Help has the capacity and interest to meet all the need for outside lending, the debt service on $1.5 million is too big to be covered by the annual net operating income from the center. That shortfall can be addressed in two ways: (1) the City of Greensboro could participate as a 0% interest lender in a subordinate position to Self Help, thus lowering the cost of borrowing, or (2) the community can wait longer to purchase the shopping center, which would allow more time for a larger equity stake to be raised (from RCC surpluses).

Lots of Ways to Accomplish The Purchase: Four Possible Financing Scenarios

Please see the attached spreadsheet in which we compare four different financing scenarios, with different timelines and implications for cash flow.

Scenario 1: The community is able to purchase the shopping center in 5 years and pay off the debt within 40 years of purchase (45 years from now).

Down-Payment: $400,000 (21% equity)

  • $250,000 from accumulated surplus from grocery store
  • $150,000 in donations and grants from local, regional, and national foundations

Lending: $1,500,000 (79% financing)

  • $800,000 @ 4% over 20 years from Self-Help (annual debt service in years 1-20 is $58,174)
  • $700,000 @ 0% over 40 years from the City of Greensboro (annual debt service in years 21-40 following payoff of Self Help note is $35,000)

In Scenario 1, the debt to Self-Help is retired before the City’s debt begins to be paid off.

Scenario 2: The community is able to purchase the shopping center in 10 years and pay off the debt within 15 years of purchase (25 years from now).

Down-Payment: $950,000 (50% equity)

  • $800,000 from accumulated surplus from grocery store
  • $150,000 in donations and grants from local, regional, and national foundations

Lending: $950,000 (50% financing)

  • $500,000 @ 4% over 15 years from Self-Help (annual debt service in years 1-15 is $44,381)
  • $450,000 @ 0% over 15 years from the City of Greensboro (annual debt service in years 1-15 is $30,000)

In Scenario 2, both the City and Self Help are paid back within 15 years of purchase.

Scenario 3: The community is able to purchase the shopping center in 10 years and pay off the debt within 20 years of purchase (30 years from now)

Down-Payment: $950,000 (50% equity)

  • $800,000 from accumulated surplus from grocery store
  • $150,000 in donations and grants from local, regional, and national foundations

Lending: $950,000 (50% financing)

  • $950,000 @ 4% over 20 years from Self-Help (annual debt service in years 1-20 is $69,082)

The City does not participate as a lender in Scenario 3. Self Help is paid back within 20 years of purchase.

Scenario 4: (Fast Purchase Scenario): The community is able to purchase the shopping center in 2 years and pay off the debt within 30 years of purchase (32 years from now)

Down-Payment: $100,000 (6% equity)

  • $20,000 from accumulated surplus from grocery store
  • $80,000 in donations and grants from local, regional, and national foundations

Lending: $1,800,000 (94% financing)

  • $300,000 @ 4% over 5 years from Self-Help (annual debt service in years 1-15 is $66,299.52)
  • $1,500,000 @ 0% over 15 years from the City of Greensboro (annual debt service in years 6-30 is $60,000)

In Scenario 4, the debt to Self Help is retired first, in years 1 – 5. The debt to the City is retired over the next 25 years (Years 6-30).

Community Wealth Building

The four scenarios have different implications for the goal of building community wealth, as can be seen in some detail in the Comparison spreadsheet. From the perspective of community wealth-building alone, Scenario 2 is both the fastest and most effective, achieving debt retirement by 2038 (20 years earlier than Scenario 1, five years earlier than Scenario 3, and seven years earlier than Scenario 4), and generating almost $2.5 million in cash by 2058.

Question 2: Are there viable forms of legal ownership and governance that would allow a community to responsibly and democratically own and operate a shopping center?

Community Land Trusts

Across the U.S., communities are turning to community ownership of real property to accomplish a number of goals: building community wealth, renewing decaying residential and commercial properties, providing economically sustainable opportunities for affordable housing and commercial development, combatting the destabilizing effects of gentrification, and gaining community control over the environment.

Many communities are using the 501(c)3 non-profit Community Land Trust (CLT) as the legal formation to manage community ownership of shared real estate assets. The closest CLTs we know of are in Orange County (Community Home Trust) and Durham (Durham Community Land Trustees). For information about CLTs, check out these websites:

While most CLTs have focused on housing stock, some are purchasing and managing commercial property as well.


In this preliminary discussion, we don’t want to go too far in specifying the details of how the land trust should be set up or governed—these are matters that have to be worked out in the community among the people who take the responsibility of forming the land trust, working with knowledgeable legal and financial experts. However, we think it’s appropriate to talk about the need for authentic democratic governance structures and practices to be in place, embedded within a strong Policy Governance framework.

We are sometimes asked how it is possible for a whole community to operate a grocery store, a shopping center, or any kind of business. Some people believe that if there are not one or two people “at the top,” then all decisions will be labored and fraught, requiring far too much patience and taking far too much time. Policy Governance is a system of governance that clarifies the roles and relationships of membership, board, and management. Policy Governance is widespread in the cooperative movement, because it allows for coherent, flexible, and effective day-to-day management of business operations, while long-term policy, strategy, and direction are determined by the membership, either directly in the annual meeting, or through their elected representatives, the Board.

Roughly, Policy Governance applied to community ownership of the shopping center would work like this: the CLT would be established as a non-profit membership-based organization, consistent with North Carolina and federal non-profit law. The membership would elect the Board and decide major strategic direction in an annual meeting. The Board would follow that strategy in establishing policy. The Board would contract with a professional property management firm to handle day-to day operations of the shopping center, following policies outlined by the Board. Management is accountable to the Board. The Board is accountable to the Membership. This model affords tremendous flexibility to management. As long as the management successfully enacts the strategic direction and follows the policies established by the Board and the membership, it is free to carry out operations in any way that works. This enables the daily operations to be carried out efficiently and effectively. (For more on Policy Governance see www.governancecoach.com.) If you remain skeptical of the effectiveness of Policy Governance in a business setting, consider the success of Weaver Street Market (annual revenue $14 million) and Company Shops Market (annual revenue $5 million), both of which utilize Policy Governance structures and practices.

Authentic Democracy and Community Control

Broad membership, anchored in the immediate neighborhood and joined by allies from across the city, is the starting point for democratic functioning of the CLT. The membership in the CLT can begin rather small (say 50 to 100 people) and easily grow to 500 to 1,000 or more people. It will be important for members to have financial or time commitment requirements as an expression of their seriousness about the organization. There are various ways other CLT’s have decided membership, but ultimately these requirements will be decided by the community. Any resident of North Carolina could become a member, but membership recruitment would be focused on the area immediately surrounding the shopping center, with secondary attention to the wider community of Greensboro.

We propose that the CLT’s board be elected entirely from its members. The majority of board seats would be reserved for members who live within a 1-2 mile radius of the shopping center. This would ensure that the shopping center would be operated with the concerns of the immediate community most in mind. Two to three seats could be reserved for members who live outside the immediate community, to bring in outside perspectives, expertise, and connections to complement those of the immediate community.

Taking its cues from the membership meeting, the Board will need to set policy on a number of issues, starting with the question of what needs of the community are to be met by the shopping center, by whom, and at what cost. The Board will also have to set policy around uses of the community space that is in the shopping center, and guidelines for the recruitment of tenants and the setting of lease terms that sustain the CLT while encouraging appropriate community economic development.

The Annual Membership Meeting would need to be conducted in a substantive, democratic way, so that members have real say about the strategic direction and questions facing the CLT. The cooperative movement can provide many examples of annual meetings with large memberships where serious matters are decided by the membership. One key question that should be addressed in each annual meeting will be whether and how to spend any annual surplus. The CLT’s bylaws will almost certainly restrict certain kinds of expenditures, to prohibit self-dealing and ensure maintenance of a charitable and community focus for the CLT.

Throughout the year, there need to be ways for members of the CLT to affect policy and day-to-day practices, while building community among members. For example, members can serve on committees, attend sponsored social and educational events, and volunteer for community improvement efforts sponsored by the nonprofit land trust.

Non-members who live in the immediate community should be invited to at least one event each quarter, designed to strengthen the CLT’s connection to the immediate community and to hear about any issues or opportunities facing the community. The CLT should also conscientiously interact with other community organizations and institutions in the area, including CEEJ, Concerned Citizens, Woodmere Park Neighborhood Association, Peeler Recreation Center, and McGirt-Horton Library.

As stated earlier, it isn’t appropriate in this paper to specify all aspects of the governance of the CLT: it’s critical that members of the community be engaged in deciding how they want the land trust to be structured. What’s key, though, is an initial and sustained commitment to authentic democracy. That means governance structures and practices that are inclusive, transparent, and accountable, backed up by well-understood and agreed-upon decision making processes. It’s not enough to get articles of incorporation and bylaws in place—it’s about building a living, dynamic capacity for practicing authentic democracy.

Question 3: How will the community gain the requisite capabilities to pull this off?

What capabilities are needed?

We see three broad capabilities that the community will need to succeed:

  1. Collective and individual skills and aptitudes related to democratic Policy Governance of a CLT that owns a substantial asset
  2. A moderate level of community cohesiveness and trust, enhanced by soft skills in community engagement and community building
  3. Specific knowledge and skills related to owning and operating a shopping center

Where will the community get these capabilities?

Keep in mind that there are different spheres and contexts in which the needed capabilities can reside:

  • In the community as a whole (e.g., a shared sense of community trust has to be held in the community at large or it isn’t authentic)
  • In individual community leaders (e.g., skill at engaging people in the community, knowledge of policy governance and how it applies to this situation, etc.)
  • Within hired experts (e.g., real estate attorneys, CPAs, board development consultants, etc.)

Our experience organizing in Northeast Greensboro on the grocery store project has taught us that there’s more capability already present in the community than it is generally credited with. The RCC experience is not a fluke: after all, the same community came together in a highly effective way to stop the re-opening of the White Street Landfill. CEEJ and Concerned Citizens have proven themselves to be well-organized, purposeful, hard-working, and in it for the long-haul. So there is clearly a solid set of capabilities to work from.

We are also confident that the experience of launching and operating a cooperatively owned grocery store will prove to be a valuable training ground for both individual leaders and the larger community in the areas of democratic functioning, community engagement, finance, retail operations, etc. In fact, we see the next few years of RCC start-up and operations as essential to getting the community ready for the larger project of owning a community asset like the shopping center.

Frankly, we’re suspicious of other proposals that have suggested “giving” part or all of the shopping center to the community, without any serious consideration of the community’s preparation to take on that responsibility, or who, exactly, represents “the community.” Without an extended, concrete opportunity for learning and practice at democratic governance of a business and in the absence of an organization with a mechanism in place to carry this out, we don’t see how the community will be able to identify its most important goals in owning the Center, elect an accountable Board, and secure and supervise appropriate qualified management.

We have sketched out four scenarios for community ownership, three of which provide five to ten years for the development of capacity, leadership, and democratic organizational structures to assume responsible ownership of the Renaissance center. These longer-term scenarios are needed to raise larger equity stakes, but they also have the benefit of providing ample time for community development. The fourth scenario, in which the community land trust is able to purchase the shopping center in two years, is achievable, but requires an acceleration of community development activities and a more serious commitment on the part of the City to creating a supportive environment for that work.

In both the RCC grocery store project and the shopping center project, F4DC is willing to commit significant staff time and some financial resource to supporting ongoing individual and community capacity building. Through our relationships with national and regional non-profits and cooperative development agencies, we can provide workshops, consultants, and trainers who can help prepare the community and its chosen leaders in the various tasks and roles required. We believe that other foundations in the region would also like to participate in these kinds of capacity-building efforts ensuring that the community and its leaders will have ample support to grow the capacities they need to succeed.


[1] The RCC has a plan to obtain $2.1 million in equity and debt financing, has already secured almost $800,000 in promised lending, and is on track to raise the balance by Spring of 2014 through member equity and loans, grassroots fundraising, foundation and government grants, and City sources. The RCC has established relationships with several national groups that are working on the food desert issue, including the Food Coop Initiative (where the RCC is under consideration for a $10,000 development grant and extensive technical assistance), the Food Trust (which partners with The Reinvestment Fund to bring CDFI, federal, and state investment to food desert projects), and Uplift Solutions (which pairs extensive urban grocery experience with a holistic vision of grocery stores as community anchors of health and economic well-being).

[2] Readers should note that this document is speculative in nature, even as we attempt to anchor our speculations in realistic assumptions. It is not a prospectus, pro-forma, statement of commitment, or formal feasibility assessment. Nor is it a business plan. Its purpose is to provide rough-cut, good faith estimates and information that help to answer the question of whether there is a realistic pathway for the community to assume ownership of the Renaissance Center.


Financial Projections

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Police surveillance of law-abiding people undermines our democracy

Greensboro Police Department
Greensboro Police Department
Greensboro Police Department

The recent disclosure in Yes Weekly of surveillance activities carried out by the Greensboro Police Department on law-abiding community activists is disturbing, but not shocking. Let’s be clear: surveillance of law-abiding citizens is hardly new in Greensboro. Just ask any young Black or Latino man in town — virtually all of them (and many of their sisters) have personal experience with repeated, groundless traffic stops. In some of these stops, officers intimated violence (as in, “You can let me do this search now, or we can do it the hard way”) in order to get compliance with unwarranted searches.

This pattern of police behavior has become so normalized, everyone knows its slang name: DWB, or driving while black/brown. DWB’s ill effects aren’t limited to inconvenience or public embarrassment. These kinds of traffic stops are by their very nature imbued with the tension of unequal power — a setup for far more violent outcomes. Even when a traffic stop ends without violence, the threat is just underneath the surface (“the hard way,” mentioned above), adding to chronic fear and mistrust. In the county where we lost Daryl Howerton and Gil Barber – two young black men whose lives ended suddenly and inexplicably at the hands of police – this fear is certainly not baseless. DWB, and the mistrust and violence it engenders, is just one of the ways that some communities in our city are “occupied” by the police.

How ironic, then, to learn that the police “occupied” Occupy Greensboro, along with other activist groups in town. Of course, Greensboro is hardly alone in this: since 9/11 police surveillance of activist groups intensified across the country. In this period, police departments, sheriff’s departments and other law enforcement agencies acquired the tools, weaponry, and mindset of paramilitary units who are in a perpetual “war” with a range of “terrorists” who are purported to be plotting unspecified violence.

Problem is, Greensboro isn’t exactly a terrorist hotbed, so all this anti-terrorist fervor, personnel, and equipment has to be directed somewhere: heck, why not point it at those shifty radicals at the Peace and Justice Network or Occupy Greensboro? The information available to the public through the Yes Weekly articles indicates the City of Greensboro spends a considerable amount of time, energy and tax-payer money collecting information about the perfectly legal activities law-abiding residents engage in as they get together to try to build a better world. There are at least two officers (Finch and Flowers) dedicated to the task of monitoring these groups. With salaries, benefits, tools, vehicles, and overhead, that’s got to come to more than $150,000 per year.

Feel safer yet? We don’t, and a lot of our friends who are working for a more just, sustainable, and democratic Greensboro don’t either.

Here’s the deal: this kind of surveillance comes at a terrible price that goes way beyond the waste of taxpayer dollars — it undermines democracy in at least two ways. First, it has a chilling, divisive effect on community social movements. Activists can never be sure whether and to what extent their activities are being reported, recorded, interpreted, filed in some police file somewhere. Some of us “hard-core” activists came to grips with this reality a long time ago, assuming there’s a possibility of police monitoring of any meeting or event, and making a point of doing our work in hyper-transparent ways, just so there is never misunderstanding about our motives and means—in case the meeting/conversation/phone call happens to be recorded or otherwise reported on.

But to make any kind of a difference in our society, social movements have to grow to include many more people than the “hard core.” For the concerned community member who is thinking they might like to attend a community meeting or stand on a picket line, the prospect of being monitored is often enough to sway them to stay home instead. They think something like this: “A police file? Don’t criminals have police files? I’m not a criminal, so I shouldn’t have a police file! I better not get involved in anything that might lead to a police file!”

If that sounds a bit histrionic to you, consider that the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed into law by President Obama, has provisions allowing for indefinite detention of anyone suspected of engaging in terrorist acts, without even having to tell the person what they’re suspected of doing. In this terrorism-obsessed, suspicious climate, the possibility of having a police file – contents unknown to you – really is something to worry about.

The second threat to democracy is subtler, but just as real. It has to do with who is being monitored. It’s pretty clear from the articles in Yes Weekly that most of Finch and Flowers’ surveillance was focused on left-wing, progressive groups, despite the complete lack of evidence that these groups were engaging in criminal activity. This suggests that the police are picking their targets for political reasons.

This can’t be solved by simply adding some right wing groups to the monitoring lists, either — the inherently unaccountable and subjective way in which decisions are reached as to who to target flies right in the face of fair treatment and right of free assembly. Between the above-mentioned “chilling effect” and the use of political targeting, we are faced with a serious challenge to the democratic engagement of community members. Seriously not good for democracy!

In a followup interview after the first Yes Weekly article, police Chief Ken Miller said, “Intelligence isn’t all criminal but it helps us keep tabs with what may be creating risk for our community.” Risk? Really? If the police are monitoring risks, we can only hope they’re monitoring bankers and securities traders, whose risky “legal” activities destabilized our economy, causing massive unemployment and swelling foreclosure rates to over 300 per month in Guilford County alone. That was sarcasm — we don’t actually think they’re monitoring bankers and traders. Does this mean the only risks the police fear are community movements that challenge the status quo? Which side are they on, anyway?

Throughout all the revelations and discussion of police monitoring, the responses of Chief Miller and others in City government have been to suggest that there is absolutely nothing odd about this kind of monitoring — Everyone is doing it! It’s simply “best practice!” This normalization of anti-democratic police behavior in the name of combatting unspecified threats is really disturbing. As is the normalization of “driving while black/brown,” and all the other ways that the police routinely target black people, brown people, poor people, immigrant people, and young people.

We’re not exactly sure what to do about these latest revelations, and how to connect them with the decades-long struggles in Greensboro to end institutionalized police abuses. One part of that struggle continues Thursday night, April 4th, at 6:30 pm at the Greensboro Historical Museum, where the Beloved Community Center will be hosting a community meeting on the topic of cleaning up the police department.

We can also ask our elected representatives on City Council to get answers to a few basic questions about police surveillance, like these:

  • Who oversees the police department’s surveillance program?
  • Are the targets of police surveillance determined through any sort of approval process that includes an elected or otherwise publicly accountable party?
  • What is done with information collected through police surveillance on individuals or groups not suspected of or connected to criminal activity?

Whatever the answers, it seems important to stand up and say, NO! We will not tolerate unfair, anti-democratic abuses by the police. We do not accept that anyone in our community has to pay this price in order for some of us to feel a bit safer. This is not the kind of “normal” that Greensboro wants!

Congratulations to the people’s movement to end corporate personhood

Rights are for the People on the Supreme Court

The Fund for Democratic Communities wishes to congratulate all the people and organizations that worked hard to see a resolution passed by our City Council opposing corporate personhood and calling on Congress to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Rights are for the People on the Supreme Court
Rights Are For The People on the Supreme Court

While the City of Greensboro’s resolution will not, by itself, remove the ability of corporate interests to flood our political processes with virtually limitless money, this decision adds our local government to the growing list of municipalities, counties and other government institutions demanding serious action on campaign finance reform.

The Occupy Wall Street movement that began just one year ago shook up the status quo by reminding people across our country and the world that the people hold the ultimate decision-making power. The effort to create and pass this resolution here in Greensboro drew energy from this movement and built relationships with organizations already engaged in similar work. This is an excellent example of how grassroots organizing builds coalitions capable of changing government policies.

We also congratulate the members of Greensboro’s City Council who voted in favor of the resolution. They demonstrated sincere receptiveness to learn about issues brought before them by Greensboro’s residents.

Click here to download a PDF of the resolution passed. Below is a video featuring some of the statements made by council members about the resolution.


SGEP Celebrates a successful CoopEcon 2012!

CoopEcon 2012 Group Photo

Cross-posted from the Southern Grassroots Economies Project website

People from across the Southeast gathered in Epes, Alabama at the Rural Training and Research Center of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives from July 27-29 to begin the hard work of building democratic ownership in our communities.

Those new to the world of cooperative business development learned what it takes to put together a business that is responsive to the community it grows from. People involved in functional cooperatives gained valuable insight into the steps needed to grow them, make them more sustainable, and contribute to region-wide development.

Read more here.