Thurmond Neighborhood Initiative

Kelvin Thompson voices his concerns as the Thurmond Neighborhood Initiative leaders present an overview of the proposed Purpose-Built Community plans for the Boston Thurmond community, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017 at St. Mark Baptist Church.

With a new name, some new goals and new faces, a Purpose Built Communities revitalization effort is coming to the Boston-Thurmond neighborhood, in a long-range effort to improve housing, education and health in an area on the north side of downtown Winston-Salem.

Organizers say it may be years before the effort bears full fruit. They say the effort will be resident-led, with an organization formed through Wake Forest University playing a supporting role.

It’s the second time around for an effort that caused an outcry of protest from people who lived at Plaza Apartments in late 2017.

That’s when they learned that an organization formed from Wake Forest, the Boston-Thurmond Innovation Network (BTIN), wanted to buy and tear down their complex and replace it with mixed-income housing.

That plan’s been thrown overboard, organizers now say.

“We have no plans to do anything with the Plaza Apartments,” said Diane Fitzhugh, a Boston-Thurmond resident who is now playing a leading role in the revamped revitalization effort. “Our focus is on the neighborhood as a whole. We are focusing on improving owner-occupied housing.”

Purpose Built Communities, formed 10 years ago in Atlanta, started after the revitalization of a neighborhood called East Lake. The network bills itself as a holistic effort that relies on three prongs: high-quality mixed-income housing, a “cradle-to-college” educational path, and community wellness programs.

The network now includes communities in more than 15 cities, including Charlotte, Raleigh and Spartanburg, S.C., in the Southeast, and more distant places such as Grand Rapids, Mich., and Omaha, Neb.

Since spring, the list now includes Boston-Thurmond in Winston-Salem, although an official announcement won’t come until this fall.

Activist — now 2020 mayoral candidate — JoAnne Allen maintains her opposition to Purpose Built, saying it doesn’t really reflect the views of most residents.

“We have over 1,000 signatures of residents in the Boston-Thurmond area who do not want ... the Purpose Built project,” Allen said.

Allen has pushed for a concept called the community land trust. The idea behind that is that the trust would own land, with residents able to own their own houses on the land. Allen believes the Purpose Built idea will make rents in the neighborhood go up.

“That is what the residents want over there and what we are trying to do,” Allen said.

Advocates of Purpose Built Communities say following the will of a community is what they’re all about. Although the Purpose Built organization acts as a consultant to neighborhoods, it doesn’t invest money or make decisions, said Carol Naughton, the president of the Atlanta-based nonprofit.

“We will help them, but it will be their plan,” Naughton said. “I think what makes sense for Boston-Thurmond is the plan that makes sense for Boston-Thurmond. Their goals will define their plan.”

Purpose Built Communities rely on local organizations, seen as “quarterbacks,” to lead local revitalization work. That’s where the BTIN came in: The group saw itself as the quarterback for Boston-Thurmond.

Now, the BTIN has been renamed the Boston-Thurmond Community Network. A separate resident-led group has been formed called the Boston-Thurmond Community Engagement Roundtable. Fitzhugh sits on both groups.

Through the Roundtable group, officials say, Boston-Thurmond residents will be setting the priorities for the revitalization effort.

The BTIN name change got rid of the word “Innovation,” which called to mind the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. Critics had charged that BTIN was a stalking horse for a gentrification push, one that would see lower- and moderate income blacks pushed out of their neighborhood and replaced with white millennials living in pricey apartments.

But it’s more than a name change for the BTIN, Fitzhugh insists.

“The biggest change is, now we sit on the board,” Fitzhugh said. The 12-member board of the Boston-Thurmond Community Network will now always have four members selected by the Roundtable: two residents, and two community stakeholders. Besides Fitzhugh, these currently include Mary Ford, Ritchie Brooks, the city’s former director of community development, and Paula Wilkins, the principal of Cook Literacy Model School.

The Roundtable group was formed after the 2017 proposal ran off the rails in that fiery public meeting. Working with a consulting group that the city brought in after the debacle, the Roundtable spent more than a year researching the purpose-built concept and getting more residents involved with the effort.

Fitzhugh said the Roundtable has put together resident-led planning teams tackling issues such as revitalization, safety and beautification, and is in the process of putting together education and health and wellness teams.

Meanwhile, the Community Network is set to go in a new direction with the appointment of a new executive director. Sylvia Oberle, who led the effort starting in 2017, plans to step down in September in a move she calls “re-retiring.”

Pointing out that she’s 67, Oberle said the effort needs a new director who can commit to staying with the effort for many years.

“The leaders in other places are sometimes on the younger side,” Oberle said. “This initiative needs someone who can commit full time and long-term. It is not a quick kind of thing.”

The Community Network board, though it has four Roundtable appointees, is still thick with heavy hitters: local businessman Don Flow, Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch, charitable foundation leaders and the like.

Still, the job description for the new executive director outlines how the new director will work with the Roundtable to develop plans, and work with the same group to monitor outcomes of the effort.

The BTCN “has no separate mission or vision, other than to ensure that residents and community partners are able to realize what they want for their neighborhood,” Oberle said.

Naughton said that both the Roundtable group and BTCN are important because together, they marry public and private philanthropic efforts with community leadership.

Fitzhugh said the revitalization effort here, as in other cities, will have its own name: Boston-Thurmond United.

Local people have made field trips to Spartanburg and Orlando, Fla., to see how Purpose Built Communities works in other places.

Assistant Winston-Salem City Manager Tasha Ford went along on some trips. The city has no formal role in Boston-Thurmond United, though it stands ready to assist.

Ford said each city appears to have its own approach.

“All the communities were very different,” Ford said. “I came away with, that you have to have a high level of trust in the process. You develop a vision, and it has got to be a vision where people can see where they fit in. It constantly evolves. You have to talk about problems as soon as they come up. This isn’t just about development. In Orlando and Spartanburg, the common thread is people, preservation and respect.”

Trust was in short supply in late 2017, when the people in and around Plaza Apartments first learned of Purpose Built Communities. Council Member D.D. Adams, in whose ward the apartment complex sits, put the brakes on any move to sell the 75-unit apartment complex. The complex is leased by the city to the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem.

Naughton said it is understandable that some people in Boston-Thurmond show mistrust.

“The neighborhoods we are invited to were created by racist policies and processes of governments, and private actors, over the last 400 years,” she said. “The people in the neighborhoods have a right to be skeptical. We have to earn their trust. And the way we can do that is to do what we said we are going to do.”

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wyoung@wsjournal.com 336-727-7369 @wyoungWSJ

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