Winder, Georgia: The Winder Housing Authority Creates a One-Stop-Shop at the Wimberly Center for Community Development
In 2014, the Winder Housing Authority (WHA) and the local government of Winder, Georgia, began work on a plan to convert a vacant school building into a center for community services, the Wimberly Center for Community Development. The seat of Barrow County, which is located about 50 miles northeast of Atlanta, Winder is a city of approximately 17,000 that has long struggled with poverty, unemployment, food insecurity, and other issues. In 2013, WHA decided to participate in HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, selling all of its public housing units to WHA affiliates and converting them to project-based subsidized housing. The proceeds from this sale allowed WHA to purchase the retired Winder-Barrow Middle School property and convert it into the Wimberly Center, a collaborative base of operations for several major community programs conducted by nonprofits and government agencies. The center serves as a community hub delivering education, food security, child enrichment, job training, and other community development services to an estimated 8,000 people annually and up to 150 children daily.
All Under One Roof
In 2013, Winder adopted its Urban Redevelopment Plan, which identified a revitalization area and validated the community’s desire to convert a vacant middle school in the city’s Glenwood neighborhood into a community resource. That same year, WHA sold its entire portfolio of 322 public housing units through the RAD program to 2 affiliates, Crescent Residential Properties of Winder and Innovation Crescent Residential Properties. WHA continues to manage the units — which are now subsidized through a project-based Section 8 voucher contract that must be renewed in perpetuity — and run support programs for residents. The new owners can improve and repair the properties using financing instruments not traditionally available to public housing. The housing agency had long been interested in creating a “one-stop-shop” for services, explains WHA executive director Michelle Yawn, but the sale of its units through RAD finally provided the funds needed to execute a project of this kind.
In February 2016, WHA purchased the Winder-Barrow Middle School property and the adjacent Osbourne Park from the board of education for $1 million. Using a combination of unrestricted funds, grant money, and donations, WHA embarked on the $1.5 million renovation of the single-story, 76,000-square-foot building. The school, which opened in 1951, had been vacant for only three years. The Wimberly Center, named for beloved Winder-Barrow Middle School principal Robert Wimberly, opened in December 2016. The center features office and program space for WHA and more than 10 nonprofit partners, including the Boys & Girls Club of Winder-Barrow County, the Piedmont Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA) program, Barrow County Habitat for Humanity, Lanier Technical College, and Adult Literacy Barrow. Winder residents can come to the center to receive immediate referrals for assistance in numerous related areas, including family self-sufficiency, adult and continuing education, and child mentoring and well-being. For example, if a resident who comes to the center to pay rent expresses difficulty affording afterschool childcare, WHA staff can take them immediately to the Boys & Girls Club office to learn about its programs. The various agencies also benefit from sharing space because their proximity offers more opportunities to collaborate and eliminate redundant services. The arrangement is financially feasible for the organizations as well: rather than charging market rates for rent, WHA follows the model of the Nonprofit Centers Network and calculates each organization’s contribution based on the operating costs of their square footage.
Financing the Wimberly Center
WHA made the largest financial contribution to the center’s development costs, using some of the proceeds from the RAD sale for the land and building purchase (table 1). Winder provided $500,000 in state-allocated community development block grant funds for the renovation of the space used by the Boys & Girls Club and the community action agency ACTION. Foreman Seeley Fountain Architecture, the project contractor, deferred $29,200 in fees for design work beyond the initial scope of the project. The Jackson County Board of County Commissioners provided a donation to be used for the renovation of the space for the Piedmont CASA program. The remaining $112,300 consisted of donations from individuals, nonprofit organizations, and businesses.
Table 1: Wimberly Center for Community Development Financing
|Winder Housing Authority||$1,000,000|
|Winder community development block grant||500,000|
|Jackson County Board of Commissioners||15,000|
The Wimberly Center’s Growth
Since its inception, the center has continually added new features and pursued new partnerships to provide more comprehensive services to the community. Although the western wing of the school building had initially been reserved for affordable workforce housing, WHA determined shortly before the center opened that code and zoning restrictions made such a project not feasible. WHA instead converted this wing into classroom space for Lanier Technical College, which provides a curriculum that includes English literacy, citizenship, and GED® classes.
In 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the center as a site for the Local Foods, Local Places program, and WHA launched Wimberly’s Roots, a nonprofit focused on food production, healthy cooking, and nutrition education. Using a $203,000 grant issued by the Appalachian Regional Commission, WHA converted the cafeteria kitchen into a catering kitchen, transformed the former media center into a demonstration kitchen, and installed a half-acre production garden. Wimberly’s Roots employs a full-time chef and gardener, who, with the help of volunteers, conduct classes, hold a regular produce market, and provide catering services. The catering services, which civic organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce often engage to provide healthy meals for meetings, generate revenue to support the garden and its classes.
In 2019, the national nonprofit Project SEARCH started a job training program at the center for high school students with learning disabilities. For the 2020 school year, the center has taken on four Project SEARCH students as interns: two are in maintenance roles, one works in accounting, and one student works in the kitchens and garden. The program employs a full-time teacher to cover academic studies and a paraprofessional who assists with trade skills.
The Wimberly Center Continues in Its Mission
In 2018, the Wimberly Center won an Award of Excellence in Community Revitalization from the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. The center continues to grow and change to suit the needs of Winder residents, with two changes on the horizon: Wimberly’s Roots is building a children’s learning garden on the premises, and on the neighboring Osbourne Park property, WHA is planning a 73-unit affordable housing complex for low-income seniors. In 2019, the senior housing development was awarded federal low-income housing tax credits, and construction is expected to begin in fall 2020. Planning has already begun for a walking trail that will encircle the 20 acres of the combined former school and park properties and link this new affordable housing project to the Wimberly Center.