Partnership center closings mean group must sell houses and redefine itself.
SOUTH BEND -- "For sale" signs mark the five houses where kids once kept busy after school and seniors passed on tips about destructive neighbors.
The city closed these neighborhood partnership centers at year's end.
Now the nonprofit that the city created to own and operate the centers, Neighborhood Resources Corp., is dreaming of ways to replace them.
How about a mobile neighborhood center? A Web site? A micro-loan and mentoring program for small businesses?
"This is not an absolute -- just ideas," says the NRC's president, Scott McKibbin. These rainwaves cannot turn to reality until the houses sell, he says.
The NRC will get the revenue from selling off the houses.
But the NRC will no longer receive the city funds that operated the centers -- $40,333 per house per year to pay for the center coordinators' salaries, utilities and fees, says Pam Meyer, the city's director of community development. Part of those funds could go to the city's new efforts to deal with vacant and abandoned houses, she says.
So, the NRC must become financially independent, and it's hoping the house revenue could be used to gain matching grants. Also, it will invest the funds to generate income from interest, says James Davis, a University of Notre Dame professor who's the NRC's treasurer and chairman of the finance committee.
Since the houses went on the market this fall, there have been some visitors but no bids.Here's one challenge, says Bruce Gordon, the houses' real estate agent: They mostly have higher selling prices than the homes surrounding them because the partnership houses are in much better shape.
"It's a good product; unfortunately it's a bad market," Gordon says.
One of partnership houses was newly built, and the others were completely rehabilitated when they opened in the past eight years.
The city launched the partnership center program in 1993 to improve the immediate neighborhoods. Neighbors came to the centers to partake in after-school or senior-citizen activities, meet with a police or code enforcement officers, and find help with any number of city services.
Once the centers met their goals for the immediate neighborhood, they were sold as homes.
Digging up ideas
With the centers shut down, the NRC is inventing a new life for itself.
"We are trying to be very visionary about this," McKibbin says.
"As a board, we thought: What's not being done that we could do?" Davis says.
Late last summer, a Notre Dame business student gathered input from the center coordinators and city planners.McKibbin says a Notre Dame researcher will file a report this month with ideas of how other cities help empower people in struggling neighborhoods, including Dayton, Ohio; Louisville; Indianapolis; Chicago; and Detroit.
Then, he says, the NRC will use that to develop its strategic plan.
Asked if that will include residents' input, Davis points out that the NRC board already includes members of various neighborhood groups.
But he adds, "We talked about having a town hall meeting to not only roll out the plan but get input."
Here are some ideas:Mobile neighborhood center: Board members have talked with a local church that already has a cargo truck that's been revamped on the inside, McKibbin says. It could appear in a given neighborhood on given days, allowing neighbors to visit with officials and do some of the things they'd done at the neighborhood centers.
Web site: This site would serve as a place for people to connect across the city.
Rather than the person down the street, Davis says, "There may be a virtual neighborhood -- people who share interests who come together."
Help for small entrepreneurs: Davis says the community is ripe for developing grass-roots businesses -- typically one or two people who want to start something out of the home.
"They are not bankable, and yet they have entrepreneurial ideas," he says.There could be micro-loan program to advance the businesses -- a practice now growing in parts of the developing world.
Along with the funds, there could be mentoring for the entrepreneurs, says Davis, who points out that Notre Dame has been mentoring some small businesses.
The NRC will continue to send residents to conferences on neighborhood issues, McKibbin says.
And Meyer says the city has allocated $25,000 to the NRC, up from $5,000, earmarked specifically for passing along grants to help neighborhood groups with things like brochures, Web sites and gaining nonprofit status.
But for any of the new ideas to thrive, Davis says it will take a lot of alliances with other nonprofits, schools, churches and other groups.