Clinton School lecturers say anchor institutions can transform city’s urban areas

by Wesley Brown ( 366 views 

The Memphis medical district

Lecturers at the Clinton School of Public Service on Monday (Nov. 6) encouraged local “anchor institutions” such as hospitals and universities to live, hire and buy locally to transform decaying urban areas into thriving neighborhoods.

During an hour-long lecture at the Little Rock-based Clinton School, called “Eds and Meds: Engaging Anchor Institutions to Stabilize and Catalyze Communities,” Alex Feldman, vice president of Philadelphia-based U3 Advisors, and Tommy Pacello, president of the Memphis Medical District Collaborative (MMDC), provided an overview of anchor strategies and lessons learned from successful efforts in other cities.

The lecture was supported by Invest Health Initiative, which is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) Foundation in Princeton, N.J.

More than a year ago, the city of Little Rock was selected by Reinvestment Fund and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to take part in the Invest Health initiative out of a pool of 180 teams from 170 communities. The local Invest Health team includes City of Little Rock staff, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, Better Community Development and Southern Bancorp Inc.

Over a period of 18 months, the team was tasked to study health outcome disparities related to domestic violence and obesity, such as crime and housing by targeting efforts in geographic locations within Little Rock that show the most deviation from the broader population.

In June 2016, the Little Rock project team traveled to Philadelphia for a kick-off meeting June 7 with the RWJ Foundation and other teams. Through the project, the Little Rock team planned to explore a broad range of ideas to improve public safety and walkability, rehabilitate housing, and offer healthier food options in target areas.

In touting the work his firm has done in Philadelphia, Detroit and Cleveland, Feldman said those cities have transformed their surrounding communities through local hiring, procurement, planning and policy strategies – also known by the tagline, “live locally, hire locally and buy locally.”

“In a lot of cases, in places like midtown Detroit and West Philadelphia in the 1990’s, no developer would come in, so it really took the institutions to take the lead and say, ‘we’re here and we want to see good things come in our neighborhood and we are actually going to drive this conversation,” said Feldman, whose East Coast consulting provides real estate and economic development solutions to anchor institutions.

One of the most significant urban transformations in the U.S. has occurred in West Philadelphia, Feldman noted. He said economic development in a mostly African America area of the East Coast city only began after the former president of Penn University Judith Rodin pushed the college to invest in the surrounding community following the murder of a student attending the school.

Today, according to an independent report conducted by Econsult Solutions Inc., Penn University and Penn Medicine Hospital had a combined economic impact on the city and state of more than $14 billion in fiscal year 2015. According to the report, the Penn area generates $1 out of every $20 in Philadelphia’s general fund and one of every nine jobs in the city’s economy.

Feldman said Penn officials began the urban renewal initiative in the 1990s by focusing on safety and security, attractive new residents to the area, and bringing new businesses and development to the crime-ridden area.

“What Penn did was to reintegrate their physical presence outward and actually open up back doors of their campus and made them front doors, and made the entrance of their campus feel like it was open to anybody,” he said. “These sort of moves helped the university re-think its relationship with the inner-city community, and community re-think its connectivity to the university as well.”

Feldman added that anchor strategies and lessons learned from West Philadelphia have also been used in other cities, such as midtown Detroit. He said over the past few years, Detroit’s urban anchor institutions have come together to attract new business, private investment and development to that city’s midtown area after decades of decline caused by the collapse of the U.S. auto industry.

“Midtown (Detroit) is coming back. It is not what West Philadelphia is at this point, but it’s certainly transitional,” he said.

Closer to home, U3 Advisors was hired in 2014 by the Memphis Medical District Collaborative, a nonprofit entity led by Pacello that is made up of stakeholders and executives in the city’s urban medical community area. Since its inaugural meeting in February 2016, the district has implemented several changes and hired U3A to design and implement similar anchor strategies in Philadelphia and Midtown Detroit.

“This isn’t a silver bullet,” Pacello said. “Actually, the way we lot to think of this is – it is more like a silver buckshot approach to neighborhood building using a lot of different tactic. The one thing you will see about Memphis … is that the challenges and the things that we are dealing with in these neighborhoods are incredibly complex – and that’s why it takes a multifaceted approach.”

Pacello said Memphis’ medical district is situated between that city’s thriving downtown area on the Mississippi River and robust economic development in midtown. He said people in the neighborhoods surrounding St. Jude Hospital and other healthcare and medical institutions are mostly African-Americans living below the poverty level.

“There’s a tale of two cities in a way. You have what’s happening in these institutions and what’s happening in the neighborhoods,” he said.

Pacello said Memphis is just starting to see some changes in the areas surrounding the hospitals and anchor institutions. He said the MMDC has a number of developments in the pipeline over the next decade, but admitted that the success of the projects largely depends on the commitment of public and private partners to invest in the area over the long term.