Imagine a mature, urban neighborhood with century-old homes sparkling with fresh coats of aesthetically forward paint, new windows and well-manicured landscaping. Or maybe a newly developed pocket neighborhood tucked into a Craftsman-style block of homes.
That’s part of the vision for Restore SGF, a budding program through the city of Springfield to meld public and private investments in neighborhoods needing some physical updates. The program has been a couple years in the making by community leaders, who looked for examples of successful residential revitalization programs – and to solve Springfield’s lack of adequate workforce housing.
Statistical drivers, according to officials, are the estimated 2,500 to 4,000-unit shortage in the city’s housing stock and its nearly 60% rental rate. Richard Ollis, a Springfield City Council member and CEO of Ollis/Akers/Arney Insurance & Business Advisors, acknowledges area businesses will be challenged with a workforce with little investment in their community. And in Springfield Business Journal’s 2022 Economic Growth Survey, over half of respondents identified a skilled workforce among their top two concerns for the next five years.
“This really sprung out of our research in figuring out who is making a difference in housing,” says Ollis, “and all roads pointed to Des Moines.”
The capital city in Iowa is nearly three years into its neighborhood revitalization program, called Invest DSM. The results? Over 580 projects completed representing $6 million invested in the city’s housing stock.
The Invest DSM annual report describes the core of its mission: “Guided by national best practices, we partner with four Special Investment Districts to keep families in their homes, help residents build equity, support local businesses and promote sustainable growth over time.”
Ollis says Springfield is on a similar path, and organizers have learned directly from Invest DSM officials. A Community Leadership Visit through the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce made initial connections in Des Moines and that was parlayed years later into a return trip by roughly 20 Springfield delegates to tour the Invest DSM neighborhoods.
“The lights went on,” says Ollis, one of the delegates. “It’s so reassuring whenever you find a model that works and you apply it to your community and say, ‘I think we can do the same or something similar here.’”
To start putting the pieces together, Invest DSM Executive Director Amber Lynch last year was invited to Springfield and presented the program to City Council.
Restore SGF was born and organizers have been accumulating funding, from public sources and private partners, and data to help guide the next steps.
Ollis says a key piece – a housing condition study – is funded and will begin soon. It’ll rate the city’s neighborhoods from 1-6, where the 1s are extremely deteriorated and the 6s are thriving.
“That is a great first step,” says Lynch, the Invest DSM director.
In Des Moines, a similar study revealed the neighborhoods that could provide the highest return on investment. They started with those in the middle of the pack, and Lynch recommends the same for Springfield.
“The natural inclination is to go work on the 1s,” Ollis notes. “But you won’t start momentum there. The 3s and 4s you already have momentum and the wherewithal to continue it.”
Lynch advises selecting four neighborhoods to begin.
“It’s also important to pay attention to where the assets are in the community – maybe a major institution, a university or hospital, a really well-used park or recreation amenity,” she adds, emphasizing proximity to business districts as well. “Part of our strategy was to strengthen the places around those assets. Build from places of strength.”
Financially, seed money in Des Moines came from a 1-cent local sales tax. Restore SGF, so far, has secured $300,000 in the city budget, $1 million in pledges from bank partners and approval for $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds.
“The reassuring thing is we have a proven model, and we’re going to roll up our sleeves and get to work,” Ollis says. “We’re going to have enough money for three years of runway. Our hope is we will gain some sustainable funding.”
From Lynch’s experience, she’s seen businesses benefit from the efforts.
“In Des Moines, the business community hasn’t always thought that neighborhood revitalization is something they should care about,” she says. “This is really an economic development tool. Having thriving housing and neighborhoods are great for workforce retention and attraction.”
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