Florida Times-Union: "Leaders working toward 'brighter day' for Northwest Jacksonville's economy"

Beth Reese Cravey

"A group of Jacksonville leaders trekked to snowy Cleveland in February to check out an economic initiative they hope to use as a model for the struggling northwest part of the city. The people behind that Cleveland initiative, a University of Maryland-based nonprofit called The Democracy Collaborative, held a roundtable in Jacksonville on Thursday and Friday to show a larger leadership group what is working in other cities. Local leaders collectively said they intend to follow through for Northwest Jacksonville, where unemployment is more than double that of the citywide rate."

Residents must “not just have jobs, but a viable future,” said James Wiggins, who pastors a church in Northwest Jacksonville and is co-president of ICARE, the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment, the local group that first connected Cleveland to Jacksonville.

“I believe a brighter day is on the horizon,” he said.

The Democracy Collaborative, called “community wealth building,” is designed to bring jobs and economic investment to neighborhoods by supporting businesses and families that are already there, rather than pushing them aside for redevelopment.

The goal is to spur job creation through local, employee-owned, for-profit companies that support anchor institutions, helping residents to grow a sustainable economy for their own neighborhoods.

The initiative in Cleveland has produced the Evergreen Cooperatives, a network of employee-owned cooperatives that meet the procurement needs of local hospitals and universities. Currently, about 85 people from Cleveland’s low-income neighborhoods work at three employee-owned businesses: an environmentally friendly commercial grade laundry, a solar and LED lighting-installation company and a 3.25-acre greenhouse capable of annually growing 3 million heads of lettuce and 300,000 pounds of herbs, according to the collaborative.

In another city using the model, Atlanta Lettuce Works is being designed as a worker-owned large-scale grower and processor of lettuce and will be located in an impoverished neighborhood. according to the collaborative.

At this week’s event, representatives of those Cleveland and Atlanta projects and of others in Washington, Pittsburgh and Amarillo, Texas, met with city officials and representatives of the nonprofit, business, financial sectors, among others. By early May, the collaborative will compile a report for Jacksonville — based on input from the roundtable — about what the next steps could be.

Jacksonville has “accomplished great things” on its own, but collaborating with other cities can boost progress, said Nina Waters, president of the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, who was on that February trip and was a roundtable speaker.

“They have learned the way to do this. We don’t have to make our own mistakes. We can learn from the mistakes of others,” she said.

Northwest Jacksonville residents and businesses themselves must play key roles, said Paul Tutwiler, CEO of the Northwest Jacksonville Community Development Corp., which emphasizes education, housing rehabilitation and economic development.

“Of, for and by the people,” he said. “An experiment can be great if you’re the scientist. If you’re the rabbit, it doesn’t feel the same.”

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