Pin It

Friday, January 31, 2014

A Q&A with the Arthur Blank Family Foundation's Frank Fernandez

Fernandez will oversee investments in human capital programs in Vine City, English Avenue, and other neighborhoods
  • Dustin Chambers/CL File
  • Fernandez will oversee investments in 'human capital' programs in Vine City, English Avenue, Castleberry Hill, and other nearby neighborhoods

Over the next three years, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank's philanthropic foundation will spend $15 million to support community efforts in Vine City, English Avenue, Castleberry Hill, and other nearby neighborhoods near the team's proposed $1.2 billion stadium. Frank Fernandez, who was recently hired to lead the initiative, recently spoke with CL from Austin, where the 39-year-old Harvard University graduate is wrapping up as executive director of Green Doors, a nonprofit aimed at increasing access to affordable housing. Prior to Green Doors, the former Salomon Smith Barney analyst worked at PeopleFund, which makes loans and offers advisory services to small businesses and nonprofits. He starts the job on Feb. 3.

How are you preparing for this role?

The best preparation is my past experience working in community development. All of the things I've been doing since I got the position is really trying to get a better feel for and understanding of, not just on the neighborhoods, but the broader dynamics of what's going on in Atlanta. In terms of the lay of the land, existing initiatives going on in different areas - whether it's jobs, education, housing, economic development - and thinking what are the things we need to do to partner with folks and move the ball forward.

What are going to be the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge is getting everyone on same page, that shared vision. In terms of bringing [together] your key stakeholders: the public sector, which includes your elected officials; the private sector, business folks and that kind of thing; and certainly the community, the folks who live in the neighborhood and are still engaged in the neighborhoods. Other challenges I see from doing this kind of work: when you have a huge safety and crime issue, folks are going to have a hard time being able to focus on anything else until you deal with safety and crime. To me, that's the first part of this. Working with APD as well as the city more broadly because a lot of this is exacerbated by an environment that's conducive to them. Part of that, for example, are your vacant and abandoned properties. We really need to figure out, on a legislative perspective and community perspective, what can be done to ameliorate that situation as quickly as possible.

Say you had a magic wand. Here are best practices that have been tried elsewhere. What comes to mind for how you tackle those, especially the vacant housing issue?

We call them problem properties. They are problem properties for a variety of reasons. Sometimes there are significant code violations. Sometimes you have a lot of bad things happening, i.e. crime. Sometimes both. So you need to think about what can we do to address that issue.

My current organization worked with a University of Texas law community development clinic and put together a report on problem properties. One of the things that often happens is that people don't know which properties are bad and in what particular way. It's important to have an inventory of that to get a sense of who are your bad actors. Two, is really coordinating some of the different departments. We found here that we were able to get City Council to pass [involves] better coordination of your departments in terms of police, code compliance, trash folks. All these people play into what's wrong with the property. Is it a structural issue? Is crime happening in it? Are they letting grass grow? Abandoned cars? All these things contribute to creating an environment that's more conducive to crime.

To me, those are the kinds of strategies that you need to have upfront to address the problem properties issue. That needs to happen in conjunction with a strong police effort to really tackle the challenges there because, in my experience, usually half of these problems are people who live there. And the other half are the people who come over because that's the place to do bad things.

We need to address these things together. It 's a precondition for doing revitalization work. You have to address crime, you have to address problem properties.

Are there similar efforts that have been tied to massive public-works projects where you say, "I like what they did here?"

I'm drawing from my own experience that it's not tied to a stadium. I've been doing research on not just U.S. cities, but European cities where you do have that. You have good examples of redevelopment happening in conjunction with the community. In other communities in the U.S., where you have a significant project, it really is completely disconnected from the neighborhood. To the Falcons' credit and the Blank Foundation's credit, to me they're focused on not letting that happen because they know that this effort will be a failure if you don't tie these two things together. One of two things is going to happen and I think this is the neighborhood's fear: One, you have this big investment, it brings all these jobs temporarily but none of the folks from the neighborhood benefit and nothing changes for the people who live in that neighborhood. Or alternatively, which I think is the more likely scenario given the large urbanization trends we're seeing across the country and in major metro areas, is that it's going to get completely gentrified and all the people who are currently living there, and who have a historic relationship with that community, are going to displaced. Neither of those is what the foundation is looking for. If we are going to be able to create investment and opportunity we want it to happen for all - but most especially those who are from this neighborhood and who currently live and work there.

How far can $15 million go to address decades of disinvestment?

It's a downpayment, in all honesty. You're going to need a lot more funding. To me that money is really a catalyst fund to bring in and attract other dollars and other investments into the community. Invest Atlanta is matching that $15 million. My hope is it would bring other resources to bear. Whether it's [federal dollars] or bringing other community organizations that have their own respective private and public resources. To me, in a lot of ways, the philanthropic and public sectors are leading because there's been such a challenge to get the private sector there. Once the private sector is there and market forces come into play we're going to see a lot of investment. Then it becomes about shaping it for the betterment of all.

How is the foundation going to judge what programs are worthy of funding?

That's something that we haven't discussed. I don't want to speak out of turn. From my experience, the basic criteria we would want to be looking for, and what I personally think is important is: Does it align with the vision we have set out for the fund as well as for the broader neighborhood? And I think that still has to be sketched out with neighborhood and stakeholders. That would be one optimal one. The second is, you have to have a certain level of competency qualifications and expertise. We have to see you have a good track record of being able to deliver good products or services, depending on the kind of investment we'll be making. One of the things I hope we will be highlighting and which are important, if it's something related to housing does it embrace green buildings? If it's economic development, does it really help folks from that community? There's the financial underwriting part of it, but there's also the mission part of it - creating jobs, better education opportunities for kids.

Will groups' past performance using public money to help improve Vine City and English Avenue in the past be considered?

I would think so. To me, it's about establishing very transparent criteria for how we evaluate investments. That's part of it. You have a track record that we can see and that demonstrates results. You have people in that community who are sick of the same ole, same ole. I think people want to see real, transformative change.

How will you judge success?

That's going to be a multi-pronged kind of thing. I can tell you, to me, there are a couple of pieces to it. One, there's a qualitative vibe you're going to get, a look and feel of when you walk around, which is something you can't put your finger on, in terms of a safe, inclusive, healthy, vibrant community. One of the things I'm going to recommend as we start off is developing a set of benchmarks and performance metrics in your multiple categories - performance outputs and outcomes - looking at what kinds of investment in some areas and the results, in terms in economic, neighborhoods, housing indicators, to see what's happening over time, to see how we move the needle in that community.

Say I have lived there, in English Avenue, forever. I want something better for my neighborhood but I'm very skeptical and I don't trust you. How are you going to convince me that you're not going to move me out of the neighborhood?

Words are cheap. It's about action. That's my experience doing work in low-income neighborhoods. People are always initially skeptical when you come it. It's understandable and legitimate. It's only when we prove our meaning and actions that people can believe and see it. All we're asking for is the opportunity to show them that we want to do something that will benefit everybody - especially the folks who live there are and are from there.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Comments (5)

Showing 1-5 of 5

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-5 of 5

Add a comment

Latest in Fresh Loaf

More by Thomas Wheatley


Search Events

Search Fresh Loaf

Recent Comments

© 2015 Creative Loafing Atlanta
Powered by Foundation