March 27, 2017; Voice of San Diego
If there’s one thing you take away from this story, it should be that you cannot retain control of all your resources and still expect a community control vision to take root.
Burdened with $33 million in debt and a lack of the sustained community engagement that was to have been its core characteristic, the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation is trying to see a path toward its planned sunset, originally scheduled for 2020.
The nonprofit, backed by the Jacobs Family Foundation and millionaire philanthropist Joseph Jacobs, is nearing the end of its 30-year utopian experiment to build a thriving resident-controlled community in southeastern San Diego. The idea was that over time, and with a hefty investment of what now rings in at $300 million, residents would make more and more of the decisions about the development of the 60 acres of purchased land and eventually take over ownership of the buildings and businesses that were developed thereon. While traces of the attempt can be seen, Reginald Jones, who has been CEO for four years, is now trying to right-size that grand vision to meet the real outcomes and current circumstances of the project. “What we are working through now is details for realization of the vision and possibility, and at what level.”
NPQ briefly covered the executive transition that eventually brought in Jones back in 2011. The die was already pretty much cast. At the time, we wrote:
The project has been relatively controversial from the start. The organization was founded and funded by Joseph Jacobs, a Los Angeles entrepreneur, and it has become a major developer and landowner. But there have always been questions, some raised by Jacobs himself, about whether the program’s leadership was unrepresentative of the low-income southeastern San Diego neighborhoods the program is aimed to improve.
Board Chair Valerie Jacobs said only that this turn of events means that the organization is on track to meet its long-term founding goal of transitioning leadership to better reflect the community in which it operates. According to Voice of San Diego, the nonprofit says that approximately 90 percent of the residents in communities served by the Jacobs Center are “ethnic minorities,” while both Vanica and Cummings are white, as is most of the senior team and the board, who are all members of the Jacobs family.
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The Center no longer expects to develop the 40 acres that remain undeveloped in partnership with residents alone. It may need to partner with developers or even sell it. One investor in the project, Henry Merritt, said that years ago he tried advocating for the Jacobs Center to get serious about preparing residents for their much-touted increased ownership role. He finally left with the sad conviction that the family was not truly committed to the concept of community control. Indeed, Merritt joins former and current investors in noting the irony that, even now, only Jacobs family members sit on the nonprofit’s board.
Jones and Andrew Hapke, who is a grandchild of Joe Jacobs and on the nonprofit’s board, say they still mean to hand over the assets of the organization to the community, but the plans for that handover are still pretty vague. “Our goal is to get to complete community ownership and control of these assets,” Hapke said. “How we get there is one of our biggest challenges but also one of our biggest opportunities.”
There have been successes over the years. The Jacobs Center developed Market Creek Plaza, bringing in a grocery store and other new amenities into the community. They also built the Joe and Vi Jacobs Center and an amphitheater, supplying gathering spaces the community long lacked. Hundreds of community members have attended Jacobs Center meetings and events, and many got jobs at the Jacobs Center and other businesses that opened at the plaza. Nonprofits in southeastern San Diego also benefited from Jacobs’ philanthropic focus on the 10 Diamond neighborhoods clustered around Euclid Avenue and Market Street.
More recently, the community’s cheered a new Walgreens, a new affordable housing development, and a beautified Chollas Creek, thanks to Jacobs’ efforts.
Now, the Jacobs family says it will stay invested at around $1.5 million a year until around 2030. “The goal is to spend down (the foundation’s coffers) so eventually we’ll have zero dollars,” Hapke said. Meanwhile, the nonprofit Neighborhood Unity Foundation, a group initially built to carry on the community grantmaking that’s been a hallmark of Jacobs’ work and which holds a 20 percent share in Market Creek Plaza, separated from the Jacobs Center years ago.
Several community leaders, including Jones, say they’re not certain of the status of the Neighborhood Unity Foundation and haven’t seen the group’s executive director in months or even years. Despite past donations to community nonprofits and initiatives, the foundation doesn’t appear to have handed out any recent grants. The plaza hasn’t turned a profit in at least five years, which means a major source of grantmaking dollars has for now dried up.