Community Development Nonprofit Shuts Its Doors—But Why?

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January 5, 2016; Columbus Dispatch

When community-based nonprofits rely heavily on the largesse of local municipal government and its political leaders and their organizational leaders are active in local contentious issues, they risk having the financial rug pulled out from under them. Often, there’s no clear line of evidence to be followed. It’s a quandary.

In Ohio, the Columbus Dispatch reports on the closure of a nonprofit group that developed risky projects in the city’s inner-city neighborhoods for the past 20 years.

Columbus Compact Corp. CEO Jonathan Beard blamed a lack of support from Columbus city government and the business community: “Columbus is not committed to community development and building community-development infrastructure,” Beard, a critic of city policies and the council, told the paper.

The group, with an annual budget of $450,000, has received no city money since 2006, instead generating its revenue from building and leasing.

The group developed a supermarket and eight condominiums, as well as restoring an old firehouse that is now home to an information technology–consulting and technology-services company.

The Compact Corp.’s activities cover 14 square miles of central Columbus. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, it brought in $26 million in federal funding for business and real estate loans, employment training, transportation to jobs, afterschool education, health initiatives, and compact projects.

Beard has been active in various grassroots community empowerment campaigns in Columbus and heads up the Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government, a watchdog group. He serves on the editorial board of Columbus’s alternative weekly, which has always been critical of city government. When asked if he felt that his criticisms of the city hurt support for the compact, he said, “That’s a question for the city, not for me.”

Columbus’s development director disagrees with Beard’s assessment that the city isn’t supportive. “Neighborhood redevelopment has always been very difficult. Some areas are succeeding; some areas are not. There’s no simple answer.”

The Compact Corp. has a mixed record, according to the Dispatch. The condominiums it built never sold, and are now rentals. While a few projects were successful, several did not come to fruition. The organization was one of the last enterprise zone efforts in the city.

So, did Columbus Compact Corp. lose its local funding because its CEO was critical of the city government, or because it wasn’t performing up to expectations, or because the city had new priorities and a limited budget? That’s not clear from the coverage so far, but what’s certain is that when you are locally active, your organization should be secure with its constituencies, because local political scenes are seldom free of personal animosities in search of weaknesses.—Larry Kaplan