Spartanburg County Foundation Helps Grow Partnerships to Revitalize a Neighborhood
The Northside of Spartanburg, South Carolina, consists of over 400 acres around the former Spartan Mills, once a center of local employment. The mill’s 2001 closure marked the nadir of the neighborhood following the decades-long decline of the domestic textile industry in the South. The closure, coupled with a second economic blow from the Great Recession, left the Northside with a housing vacancy rate exceeding 40 percent. Although the city moved quickly to stabilize the neighborhood by purchasing abandoned properties, area groups recognized the need for a long-term, holistic revitalization plan. The Spartanburg County Foundation helped spearhead that effort, providing early philanthropic and leadership support in what would eventually become the Northside Development Group (NDG). The foundation was recognized in 2018 with a HUD Secretary’s Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnerships — Housing and Community Development in Action for its achievements in the Northside.
Coming Together for Strategic Holistic Change
The foundation was one of many partners involved in bringing change to the Northside following the recession. Igniting the first spark, the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) founded a satellite campus at the site of the old mill in 2010, spurring the first conversations about addressing long-existing problems in the neighborhood. Tammie Hoy Hawkins, project manager for NDG, reports that in 2012 local groups, including the city, the Spartanburg County Foundation, and local educational and medical institutions, received a HUD Choice Neighborhoods planning grant. Together, the groups created a visionary document with a four-pronged strategy to comprehensively remake the Northside. The “people” prong focuses on ensuring the physical and mental health of residents, providing community space, making healthy food accessible, and promoting economic stability and self-sufficiency. The “neighborhood” prong aims to create a safe and diverse community with recreation opportunities and well-used parks by improving abandoned and substandard properties. The “housing” prong envisions a neighborhood where new and existing residents want to live, with high-quality, mixed-income housing; public and affordable housing; minimal displacement; and long-term housing stability. The “education” prong pursues early childhood education to enhance ongoing academic proficiency and ensure that high school graduates are ready to pursue postsecondary education or careers.
Key to achieving the plan’s vision would be a network of institutions, stakeholders, and organizations as well as residents. Having operated for more than 75 years, the Spartanburg County Foundation was an important partner in building the relationships that would form the bedrock of NDG. For example, the foundation hosted meetings as part of their Donor Connect Education Session series to convene supporting organizations and individuals, bringing partners onboard with the group’s vision for the neighborhood’s transformation. The foundation also served as an initial investor in NDG’s projects, extending $250,000 in patient capital to fund the early land acquisition activity. With foundation and partner support, NDG became the group that, according to Hawkins, would “wake up every day focused on implementing the transformation plan.” By bringing neighborhood residents onboard through the Northside Voyagers group, the set of relationships between the philanthropic, neighborhood, civic, and practitioner segments of the community ensured a unified front in tackling the four areas of targeted development.
Transformation in Action
A series of completed and ongoing initiatives has been key in transforming the Northside. An early project was the Brawley Street Model Block, which used some of the vacant properties acquired by the city in its earlier effort to stabilize the neighborhood following the recession. The city had demolished 29 blighted structures, creating space for NDG to construct 7 new buildings containing 21 three-bedroom rental units affordable to families with incomes between 50 and 120 percent of the area median income. NDG’s development partner, Spartanburg Housing Partners, is currently constructing a $17 million mixed-income housing development that will feature 90 rental units in a mix of 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom configurations. Recognizing the importance of stabilizing existing owners in safe housing as well as ensuring quality affordable rental housing, NDG launched its Owner Occupied Rehab program. The program provided forgivable loans to homeowners who needed emergency and minor repairs and connected homeowners with volunteer groups that could provide free assistance. The program helped 28 owners repair their homes.
Other projects focus on the nonhousing aspects of the Northside that are crucial to community well-being. Services such as education and job training programs that support economic mobility and case managers are available for residents, funded in part by the Spartanburg County Foundation. Adjacent to the mixed-income residential development, NDG is helping to build a mixed-use development that will provide clinical and classroom space where VCOM will offer residents educational opportunities and some medical services. The development will also house office space for other community partners as well as additional mixed-income housing. In early 2020, the Franklin School Early Learning Center began serving children aged six weeks to four years old, with a preference for those living in the Northside and other designated areas. These services, along with an extended academic year for elementary school students, can be particularly effective interventions in lower-income communities, where poverty, absent supportive programming, is strongly linked to reduced educational outcomes. In addition, NDG worked to build Harvest Park, which features a permanent farmers market called the Hub City Farmers Market. At the Monarch Café and Food Store, also in the park, the Butterfly Foundation provides culinary job training.
Although the 2014 plan remains the polestar for ongoing development efforts, NDG recently adopted a five-year addendum to guide the next stage of development. This is important, Hawkins says, to account for the changes that have occurred so far. Significantly, private developers are now pursuing projects in the neighborhood, fulfilling one of the outcomes sought by the plan. As partner organizations begin collecting data to assess the implementation of the plan’s four strategies, Hawkins reports signs that crime rates have fallen, school performance has improved, and housing has stabilized. Construction of additional community assets is under way, including the Dr. T.K. Gregg Community Center, featuring two pools, a fitness room, and community event space to host afterschool programs and computer and financial literacy courses. The Spartanburg County Foundation is helping to fund an entrepreneurship program to nurture locally owned businesses. The program provides 14 weeks of business training and helps connect participants to potential investors. These efforts will further the people, neighborhood, education, and housing goals of NDG. As the Northside continues to evolve, the cooperative processes and relationships that have been built among neighborhood stakeholders will help ensure that future development enhances the well-being of existing residents while leading to an inclusive and vibrant mixed-income community.