Congress must seize the opportunity to revitalize America's communities

Congress must seize the opportunity to revitalize America's communities
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The Masonic Theatre in Clifton Forge, Va., — a small town in the Alleghany Highlands — opened in 1906. Over the years, the three-story architectural masterpiece has hosted vaudeville shows, movies, and live performances by stars such as Gene Autry, the Drifters and the Count Basie Orchestra.

In 2009, six years after the Masonic had been donated to the town of Clifton Forge, a group of residents set out to renovate the deteriorating landmark. Their dedication bore fruit in 2016, when the Masonic reopened as a stunning performing arts venue, movie theater and educational facility. 

I’m proud that Virginia Community Capital, a member of Appalachian Community Capital, the organization I’m honored to lead, was one of the lenders that provided financing for the project.

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And I know that for Clifton Forge — a community that has struggled since the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway’s maintenance shop there closed decades ago — the new Masonic is much more than a beautiful building.

It’s the crown jewel of the town’s historic district and a cornerstone of efforts to recreate Clifton Forge as an arts and entertainment destination. It’s a source of good jobs and a magnet for new development. It’s a catalyst for economic and cultural renewal — a place with the power to transform the community and the lives of the people who live there.

Unfortunately, the future of seminal projects like this are at risk if Congress does not act on the Community Revitalization Fund proposed by the Biden-Harris administration.

The Community Revitalization Fund would be a $10 billion funding program administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to support civic infrastructure projects in underserved communities.

It would provide $500 million in planning grants and $9.5 billion in implementation grants to build health centers, cultural venues, job training centers, business incubators and commercial spaces, restore vacant buildings and replace toxic waste fields with new parks, greenways and community gardens.

The Community Revitalization Fund is a much-needed resource, because financing projects like these in underserved communities is uniquely challenging.

Indeed, many lenders and developers are reluctant to invest in projects in low-income communities, especially in low-income communities of color. Moreover, even though loans and grants are available from a variety of public and private sources, putting together different types of funding from different programs, each with its own requirements and restrictions, is difficult.

It’s not surprising that it took five years for the people in Clifton Forge to secure financing for the $6.7 million renovation of the Masonic; the real story is that they succeeded. Too many worthwhile projects in low-income communities stall or simply never get underway due to the lack of funding.

The Community Revitalization Fund would offer a new way forward. It not only would provide unprecedented financing for high-impact projects in communities where they are needed most, but also would be designed to ensure that the funds flow directly to community-based organizations and truly benefit the most vulnerable.

Thus, the Community Revitalization Fund can be an excellent tool for funding comprehensive, cornerstone projects, like the Masonic, that stimulate other development. And because it directs its resources to local organizations that are accountable to their communities, it can advance equity and build wealth in communities, especially communities of color, that have been harmed for generations by a lack of investment.

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Our nationwide network of mission-driven Community Development Financial Institutions — known as CDFIs — has a long track record of providing financing in low-income communities and can play a central role in the distribution of Community Revitalization Fund resources. CDFIs should be among the community-based organizations that are prioritized to receive funds through the program.

The Community Revitalization Fund is still only a proposal — it’s time for Congress to enact legislation that would ensure its implementation.

To that end, I was proud to join the representatives of more than 100 organizations in signing a letter to leaders in Congress urging them to move forward with the Community Revitalization Fund.  

When I think of the rebirth of the Masonic, I’m reminded of a saying we have in the community development world: “That’s not a miracle; that’s just community development.” 

The creation of the Masonic and thousands of other successful projects in low-income communities across America may seem miraculous. In fact, these projects are the products of extraordinary dedication and much hard and loving work. 

Miracles are always welcome, of course, but what community developers really need if we are to honor our commitment to rebuilding the communities we serve is funding. What we need is the Community Revitalization Fund. 

Donna J. Gambrell is the former director of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund and currently serves as the president and CEO of Appalachian Community Capital, an alliance of 26 mission-driven lenders dedicated to increasing business lending in the region.