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Wednesday feature: Does development have to be at odds with the public interest?

If you read nearly any commentary about development you usually are reading about evil developers on one side and everybody else on the other. Whether "everybody else" is a neighborhood group, an environmental organization or even a historic advocacy group, it often seems that we pitch developers with the black hats. Good project or bad, good person or bad, that's the story line the media loves. While much has been written in recent years about NIMBY's and the beginnings of a push-back against them, the common frame is still that developers are bad people who should be punished for their sins.

You may gather that I don't fall in line with that sentiment. Development, like every profession, has more than its share of bad actors. Some can be bullies, some don't care about anything but money and quite a few have no real understanding of markets. We certainly have an abundance of developers that build projects I don't like or that are unquestionably ugly. But they do so very often because the buying public doesn't demand different or better. In a free society if we want something different we have to find ways to vote with our feet, even if it's often difficult.

But more importantly, most cities have their share of very good developers - smart, earnest people who are trying to make their communities better every day. They do so often with very real financial risk and the knowledge that they're likely to be skewered in the press at any moment. Of course they do so because high risk sometimes brings high reward, but nonetheless I've met and worked with many developers that defy society's caricature.

I was fascinated to learn recently about one such developer in Asheville, NC, Public Interest Projects. Like most developers, PIP buys buildings, renovates buildings and also builds new ones. They fill them with stores, residents, offices, etc. They are active in the community, win awards and sometimes cause controversy. All of that is a very ordinary day in the life for a developer active in a downtown. 

But PIP does quite a bit more than that. While most developers consider the above the beginning and end of their role, PIP takes on a much more active stake in Asheville's economic development. They don't just give to local charities or help out not-for-profits in the community, they have been actively building community and a local economy.

Most people see Asheville as it is today and think it was always that way. It's such a charming and attractive place (and clearly upscale) that it's hard to believe that 30 years ago downtown was a virtual ghost town. Like so many cities, Asheville built freeways, big roads and a mall, and the old heart of town mostly died. Along came Julian Price. I don't need to go deeply into Julian's personal story, since you can read about it here. Suffice it to say, he was a pretty remarkable guy and saw opportunity when few else did. Money quote:

All told, Price bought and restored dozens of downtown properties, including the J.C. Penney Building, the old Asheville Hotel and the Carolina Apartments — turning mostly derelict space into affordable condos, rental apartments and retail space. He refurbished the historic former George Vanderbilt Hotel, which an ill-advised prior face-lift had turned into a characterless brick box. He bought the Public Service Building and gave it to the Self-Help Credit Union. He funded an alternative reading room featuring publications one wouldn’t find at Pack Library. He provided startup capital, charitable donations and low-interest loans to countless businesses and groups around town, including the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation, Mountain Housing Opportunities, Pisgah Legal Services, RiverLink, the Mountain Area Information Network, Quality Forward (now Asheville GreenWorks) and the YWCA. The list goes on and on.

What I've found most fascinating in the whole PIP/Julian Price story is how they used private investment and development to build a successful local economy. If you visit Asheville today, you can see how those seeds bore fruit. The streets are filled with unique, locally-owned businesses instead of the typical barrage of chain stores. The whole town has a culture that supports local (see picture above). That keeps money in the regional economy and creates wealth instead of shipping dollars off to a corporate hq somewhere else.

PIP helped nurture this by actively investing in those businesses. In some cases that meant an equity investment, in others it meant a complete take-over. PIP today still runs the books for many local businesses, since that's an area that a lot of entrepreneurs frankly need help. This is no charity mission - PIP is a for-profit company, not a not-for-profit doing this out of the good of their hearts and relying on grant monies.

When you hear the story, it's no great surprise to learn that PIP spawned the likes of Urban 3, Joe Minicozzi's consulting firm. Joe has taken what's been learned in Asheville and built on it by showing other communities the inherent value in downtowns. His message: downtowns have tremendous and tangible financial worth. Don't destroy them by making them suburban and don't overvalue suburban-style development on the edge of town since it's actually a money loser.

All in all, I find PIP to be a remarkable example, and one that gets well beyond the stereotypes of "black hat" developers. PIP's work shows that when people with knowledge and passion become leaders, they can do amazing things. From their own website:

Public Interest Projects has invested over $15,000,000 of equity capital in downtown Asheville. In 20 years, the company has been responsible for the renovation of 14 downtown buildings, created 97 market-rate housing units, 16 retail spaces and 15,000 square feet of office space (all in long vacant, unused space), salvaged 123 low income elderly housing units, created a great downtown live music club, developed a wireless broadband data network for downtown residents and businesses, and provided financial and/or management support for 18 downtown businesses. Our work has been recognized locally, regionally, and internationally.

Can you see it? This is what true economic development looks like. Who in your community can step up and create a similar model?

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