Community Leaders Discuss Northeast Wilmington Revitalization

In this lightly-edited transcript of Highlands Live from Wednesday, November 3, REACH Riverside Development Corporation Board Chair, Charlie McDowell, and his colleague, WRK Group CEO, Logan Herring, discuss progress-to-date on their effort to revitalize Northeast Wilmington’s Riverside community.

Lindsey DiSabatino: We like to start with your sense of the highlands. Charlie, what are your favorite spots or memories?

Charlie McDowell: We live in a one block section of 16th Street, which is just such a lovely place. My favorite recollection might very well be when we moved in a steaming hot July when my wife was eight months pregnant with our first child in 1974.

Benjamin Wagner: Charlie, you grew up in Virginia where you were a national teenage golf phenom, attended Princeton and UVA Law. Give us a sense of how you got to Delaware?

Charlie: We came to Delaware because my wife and I were in graduate school in Charlottesville. I didn’t want to go back to Virginia Beach. She didn’t want to go back to West Virginia. We wanted a middle-sized town in the mid-Atlantic area. And Wilmington was the right size, the right location. And Tommy Evans, who was the U.S. House representative of Delaware was a friend of ours because he married a woman who I knew from Virginia Beach. And I said, I came to Wilmington who would I want to work for? He said, “You want to call Charlie Crompton, Dick Sutton and Charlie Richards.” So I came in, got job offers and accepted.

Benjamin: Meantime, Logan, you’re a few years Charlie’s junior, also a sports phenom in your own right just a few blocks east of 95 in the Trinity Vicinity. Tell us a little bit about growing up there, and your experience and perspective in The Highlands.

Logan Herring: I grew up closer to Trinity Vicinity, now known as West Center City, really, where the mayor has put an emphasis. It’s a neighborhood between 95 and Downtown Wilmington. I grew up in a single mother household and I was very fortunate; unlike nearly everybody else that grew up in my neighborhood, I had access to resources. My grandfather, who if many of you have been in Wilmington for a number of decades, you would probably know or have worked or have read about my grandfather, the late Reverend Otis Herring, who was visually blind, and was a pastor for Union Baptist Church.

I found out recently that my grandfather did everything that I’m doing now: affordable housing, early learning, community service, redevelopment – everything that we’re doing now. And I don’t even know if Charlie’s heard this, but he set up multiple entities or different nonprofits, and he was the glue that bound them together. So I knew nothing about that until a couple of months ago.

My grandfather was fortunate enough to be successful in his own right. He paid for me to go to Wilmington Montessori through second grade where my son is now currently attending. Then I went to public school for third to eighth grade. I went to St. Mark’s for two years and then went to Sanford for two years. So you talk about a diverse background. And I believe that is truly the reason why I’m able to connect and have conversations with a diverse set of people that really make up this diverse population that we have in Wilmington

Lindsey: What is one of your most distinctive memories of your grandfather, and how do you experience his legacy is to Wilmington?

Logan: He passed when I was 14. He would always have money in his wallet. And when I would come in, he would call me Logo, “Come here, Logo,” and dig in his wallet. And he’d have everything from $1 Bill to $100 bill. But somehow, he knew the way he folded the money or how it felt, I would never get that $100 bill. I might be fortunate on my birthday or some other time to get a $20 bill. But I never got that $100 $100 bill.

He always took care of me in ways, and I think he really paved the way and in terms of what he what he means to me in this community. I hear about it every day, whether it’s from Tom Carper, our US Senator, or to people in the community. I was talking to Bebe Coker today on the phone, and she was just telling me how many people appreciate what I’m doing, because it’s similar to my grandfather’s work. And it’s not that we are doing great work, but we’re doing so with integrity, and character. My predecessor at Kingswood made some very poor decisions and jeopardized an institution that’s been in the neighborhood for 1946. [Bebe] just really appreciated and many people in the community appreciate the way we’re approaching the work and doing so with integrity [and] a sense of pride with the community.

Lindsey: Charlie, you helped Riverfront redevelopment, East Side redevelopment, and now Riverside. What experience catalyzed your civic engagement in Wilmington?

Charlie: Well, I was very fortunate to go to an outstanding boarding school for two years, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. And there was something about the tradition of that school that promoted community development, community engagement, I guess. And so I’ve sort of always felt that I had a passion for that from very young times. And during my legal career, I made an effort to be out and about and get things done in the community, but let’s say I didn’t take the time back when I was [was in the] workday. It wasn’t until when I retired in 2005 that I really had full time to devote to community activities. And so that’s sort of how I got where I am.

Benjamin: The difference between these two neighboring neighborhoods is palpable jogging or biking The Brandywine; the parks, trees, stores, restaurants — everything end at the Market Street Bridge. What kind of forces, specifically in Wilmington, created that discrepancy? Where a neighborhood like The Highlands is so well resourced, and neighborhood like Riverside is not? And Logan, how did you and Charlie come to really work together to turn the tide there?

Logan: There are about 850 communities or neighborhoods like this around the country. And we’re working with Purpose Built communities that provides technical assistance for neighborhoods that want to see holistic change for neighborhoods that have been so segregated, and have been facing the many barriers and oppressions that have plagued our society across this entire country.

Wilmington is like many other communities around this country. And we could go back, you know, I think a lot of us have learned more than we probably have learned in our lifetime over the past year and a half. But housing segregation really took a toll on this country. $120 billion are federally subsidized mortgages went out into this country [after] World War Two. And out of the $120 billion of mortgages, 98% were available to white families. This allowed, you know, white families to purchase homes, in neighborhoods that black families were not allowed to purchase homes. And blacks were then relegated to neighborhoods like Riverside.

The Riverside public housing community was built initially for white veterans. And when whites had the ability to purchase homes in The Highlands, blacks had to move into neighborhoods like Riverside.

And then when you layer on top the criminal justice system and how during the crack epidemic, we treated it as a criminal justice issue versus a health issue – as we’re treating the opioid epidemic right now.

One in four African American males between the ages of 20 and 29 were in prison, they’re on parole. And then public housing policy stated that if you’re a returning citizen from prison, you can’t live in public housing. And the result today is that 87% of our households are led by single women because Delaware has the second highest recidivism rate in the country, where within three years, if you are returning from prison, you’re going right back to prison at a 65% clip.

When you just add on those layers, and those are just a few, you see a community that is led by 87% households led by single women, you’re seeing a lack of resources, a lack of community.

The average household income in the Riverside neighborhood is less than $10,000. I don’t know how many of us on the screen can live with a $10,000 annual income. And that is the situation that our community finds itself in. But keep in mind that our communities did not put itself in this position. So that’s something that we keep top of mind when we look to eradicate and eliminate a lot of the barriers that have been stacked up over time.

Charlie, I don’t know if you want to answer how our two worlds collided?

Charlie: The Highlands played an absolutely critical role in why Logan and I are working together on this project. When I was at EastSide Charter School, and having a very frustrating experience dealing with kids, I read about this project in Atlanta where they had dealt with a neighborhood very similar to the EastSide Charter, Riverside neighborhood. So, I call my friend Mike Purzycki who lives across the street from me here, because I knew he would be interested in this. And he recruited Robbie Cheney. We went to Atlanta. We saw what had been done down there. And we thought, ‘Man, this is great. We got to bring this back to Delaware!’

Well, we came back to Delaware and we started socializing the idea and we got great response from everybody except from the Wilmington Housing Authority and the last mayor’s administration. And that was because the Housing Authority owns the Riverside Public Housing project, which is right next door to EastSide charter school right next door to Kingswood Community Center, and was absolutely necessary to do the neighborhood revitalization project that we were working on.

So at that time, I learned that the that the mayor controlled the Housing Authority by appointing seven of the nine commissioners, and Mike at that time was thinking about running for mayor. And I figured, well, the best thing I can do to move this project along is to get Mike elected mayor. So I signed on as treasurer to his campaign. Actually, I was signed on to that role at a meeting I did not attend. In fact, I [wasn’t] even told about the meeting. I was told that I had become the treasurer.

So we went to work we spent about a year. And Highlands was absolutely critical, because it was our Eighth District that provided the votes that allowed Mike to win over, ironically, Logan’s best friend, Eugene Young. Without The Highlands, Mike would not be would not have won that race for sure.

And when he came into office, he appointed six new commissioners to the Wilmington Housing Authority. So we got the politics right. The Housing Authority signed on with Kingswood, and  we all began working on this project together.

Logan: So thank you to you all for helping Mike defeat my best friend. And I really appreciate it. We laugh about it today because it actually worked out, I think, in everyone’s [interest]. Because Eugene is now the Cabinet Secretary, the Director of the Delaware State Housing Authority, which is the main agency with which we work to finance the housing that we’re building. So it all ended up working out for the better.

And I tell you, I’m glad he didn’t become elected mayor because he has two young children six and three who my son plays with on a regular basis. I was like, “You would be divorced in your family would over” because I see how demanding the job is on Mike whenever I’m in his presence. And one of my good friends is his personal assistant. So I see how demanding it is. So I say that in jest, but we really do appreciate what you all did.

Benjamin: Can you guys tell us a little bit more the scope and breadth of the work happening today. And if I understand correctly, you got a pretty sizable investment recently. And there’s also some effort to keep those funds coming in.

Logan: So I’ve talked with big round numbers: $250 million, 600 mixed income homes to replace the existing public units that exist now which is almost about 300 units. So a two to one replacement. New $41 million, 100,000 square foot, state-of-the-art Kingswood Community Center, which was my background before I switched it to this one. And then the state-of-the-art teen center known affectionately as The Warehouse where our very own president visited exactly a year ago on Election Day – as it is a tradition where he started his service in the community as a lifeguard at the pool, which was renamed after him three years ago.

And another shout out to my grandfather. My grandfather was the first community member that endorsed [President Biden’s] political career. So 600 homes, $41 million community center, state-of-the-art teen center, not to mention what we plan to do along Northeast Boulevard, which was the main thoroughfare before interstate 95, which was also something that segregated our communities all across the country.

So I think that speaks to scope; it’s very large project: $250 million. And we have already leveraged I think close to $89 million of that 26.4 that we just received a few weeks ago from the State of Delaware courtesy of the Governor and American Rescue Plan Act dollars.

Charlie: We should say Logan, the 26 point 4 million is targeted for housing. And we still need $20 million to build this new Kingswood Community Center.

Logan: The community center is 41. We raised 11 and a half. We have requested an additional 20 from the state of Delaware, and then we have some other fundraising prospects to fill the remainder of the gap.

And it looks like Brian DiSabatino is on here tonight. And EDIS is most likely going to be the construction manager for the new Kingswood community. Brian has been a tremendous help to say the least, with everything we’re doing around real estate, and particularly Kingsborough Community Center. I see him with thumbs up.

Charlie: I might as well get a plug in here for each side charted what’s going on there too, because EastSide Charter really was the beginning of this whole, this whole project. And he said charter is in the process early –

Logan: I’m sorry, apologies in advance, if we could just pause. IDave Ford, our Chief Financial Strategist, mostly known to many as CFO, just sent me a photo while we’re on the screen, I want to give another shout out to the state of Delaware because we also received $10 million from the bond bill this year. And he just sent me a picture of a $10 million check he received in the mail from State of Delaware. So it’s something cool to speak about the level of support that we have from not just our mayor who we spoke, but our county or city, our governor and the State of Delaware. And we got a lot of national support as well.

I’m sorry, Charlie, but I just had to throw that in there. I get excited; I remember the days we used to get excited for $10. And now we’re looking at $10 million check.

Charlie: That’s great. That’s a great interruption. So EastSide Charter is in the process now of a $13 million project to build a new state of the art STEM hub for the community, which will also serve as the home of its Middle School Honors Program, which will be stem focused and community focused. And that building will be part of the entrance into where the new housing is. So it’d be one of the first things that that people see when they come into approach our new housing. And we’ll be in the community. On Monday, there’ll be an announcement of a major donor, pledging $4 million to that to that project. So that’s a big, big start, but we’ll be looking having to raise a good deal more money to.

Audience: What consideration is given to the people that are living there now?

Logan: Number one priority, hands down. We are very fortunate that in our project, unlike many of these projects around the country, we have the ability to build about 200 homes on vacant land before having to demolish anything. Most of these projects don’t have available land when you’re working in urban areas. We are very fortunate that we do because homes were demolished over a decade ago. So that land has remained vacant.

Also, we’re not just moving folks across the street without preparation and support. What we’re finding and working with an initiative that we just started calling Empower, which really focuses on economic mobility, and self-sufficiency. I would say, and I think Charlie’s agrees with me, that we want to put ourselves out of business. We want the community to be self-sufficient. I believe taxes and businesses exist to fill a gap but not to be a permanent crutch. So as we invest in empower a million dollars annually, it is all around working with our families to become economically mobile.

The Northstar is to be able to purchase a home in the neighborhood. So we have a mixed income approach to this, where we have everything from market rate rental to the deeply subsidized rentals, but also homeownership units that will be a part of this and our goal is that working with a diverse community we can benefit or they can benefit from one another.

What we’re finding right now is that many of our existing residents are in crisis mode. And what I mean by crisis mode is, we want to focus on financial literacy and, you know, workforce development skills and continuing education. And we have mothers that come in and say, “I don’t have food to feed my children, my electric is cut off. I don’t have a car to get my child to the doctor’s office.” It’s triage, basically. It’s making sure we address the immediate needs and then stabilizing them, so they can then move on to prosperity.

So these are the things that we have to do with our community. And on top of that, let’s throw on a global pandemic. And then on top of that, let’s throw one Hurricane Ida on top of the neighborhood and see how that fares for you.

I’m just going to assume, if you’re in a Highlands community that if your house gets flooded, or your car gets flooded, that you might have, you know, a little bit of resiliency built up in your bank account, or you might have a place to go stay. We still have people from Hurricane either that are displaced and living in motels, hotels.

So the existing residents are our number one priority. But we also want to make this community a community that is so attractive and has the amenities that anyone would want to who has choice want to come and live in this neighborhood. And that’s where Charlie and I see when we go down to Atlanta and see the drew charter school charter able to say all the time, it looks like the school would take off and go to the moon. And they said they wanted to build the best school possible in the country. We want to build the best community center possible in the country. And he’s already talked about the improvements that EastSide Charters are bringing to bear. And we already talked about, you know what The Warehouse is also adding it as an amenity in the neighborhood as well for our teams.

Benjamin: I’m interested, you know, you both have this shared experience as championship athletes. And I’m wondering how that manifests the way that you lead, if at all.

Logan: I’m laughing because I don’t know who’s more competitive. We compete with each other. And then we got to remember, we’re on the same team. But I think that’s it.

I still coach varsity high school soccer and basketball. I’ve been doing that for over 10 years, in all my free time, if you can imagine. I played collegiate soccer and basketball. Every team I’ve been on, I’ve been the captain. And since then I’ve been coaching. And I’m really big on building teams, and getting people to play their role in order what’s best for the team.

We had a staff meeting today. And we went over our core values and our number one core value amongst one of eight. But the number one, bar none is community first. And every decision we make we make what’s best for the community. And I equate that to what you do when you’re on a team, you do what’s best for the team, not necessarily what’s best for you as an individual player. I don’t want to speak for Charlie, but I am not going to take up golf anytime soon. Because as competitive as I am against others, I am the most competitive with myself. And I think that is the definition of the sport of golf. But I’ll leave that to Charlie.

Charlie: Well, I would say that the one characteristic of a of a champion athlete, I think probably in all domains is the ability to really focus or really, really concentrate. And I know people have made that comment about me from time to time. And so I would say that that is a characteristic that I have that enabled me to succeed at the highest level in golf, many, many, many, many, many years ago. It’s sort of curious, I mean, we’re not teeing up every day, [but] I’m still expecting to shoot par, even though I very rarely do it. But, you know, that’s the expectation.

Audience: A week or two ago, Mike Purzycki, was commenting on the effects of school busing of kids in Wilmington. And he thought it had a very negative effect on many of them and their families. Because they were both so far out of the area, that they didn’t form bonds with the other kids and their parents, it was hard for the parents of the bust, children to attend meetings and conferences and be as involved with the school as they would be if it were more of a neighborhood school situation. So that was interesting to me. And I’m wondering if you’re seeing that as well.

Logan: Yeah, I’m not going to disagree. I think it’s a contributing factor. But I don’t believe it’s a major factor. And what I mean by that is, when we have these conversations about race, sometimes we just need to reverse the role. So I would ask all of you, if you’re living in The Highlands or Greenville and you had to bus those students to a school in the Riverside, EastSide Charter, would your children still perform at a high level? And I’m going to assume that they would, because they would have the necessary support at home, when they come home to their community, they would have access to resources and after school setting.

And I’m actually going to lob this one in front of the room, or put the ball right in front of the th cup for Charlie for a better analogy, because I think that Charlie’s response will probably be more articulate, because of the reason why he was looking at solutions and stumbled upon Purpose Built. It’s not necessarily the school that is the unit of change, although the school is an important factor. But I believe the number one priority, and the major contributor to this is the community and stabilizing community.

Charlie: I think that’s exactly right. When you hear comments about, oh, that’s a bad school or whatever. In my experience, the academic performance of schools is just totally reflective of the demographics of the kids that are there. And it’s the neighborhoods from which they come. And that’s why the Purpose Built approach is a neighborhood focused approach. And so we want to totally improve the whole neighborhood. So that everybody comes up with a great opportunity in life and great education in front of them, a great home life, nice, you know, comfortable place to live, good job, etc, etc, all those things that are necessary for a vibrant life. And that that’s our desire for the kids at EastSide Charter: we want them all to be able to live choice-filled lives.

Logan: And just to piggyback, the most important thing that I think we are doing is working with the families. Because neighborhoods and communities are built by families, you have to start one family at a time. We have to break it down. And really that’s what we’re doing with Empower: empowering the families to be self-sufficient. And you bring in, we could replace and put bring in 300 strong families and have a great community. And we choose or we’d rather choose to bring in some additional families. But we’re really going to focus to rebuild or not rebuild, but build up and empower the families to strengthen themselves with our support. And then we’re really going to have a strong community.

Lindsey: So as your community neighbors, how can us as the highlands help get involved and support our Riverside neighbors?

Logan: We have a saying around here about getting proximate to the work. This means getting close, whether it’s contributing financially – we are currently celebrating the 75th anniversary of Kingswood Community Center with 75 Days of Giving the last 75 days of 2021. We are asking folks to contribute, whether it’s $75 or $75,000, in tribute to Kingswood Community Center.

But I would say more importantly than just a one-time gift or continued financial support [is that] we need partners, we need collaborators, we need supporters. We need people to understand exactly [what] we’re doing. This conversation is not going to give you insight to everything that we’re doing. And it’s very comprehensive. So we would invite you to join a Lunch & Learn session. It’s an hour long lunch virtually. And then after that, if you feel inclined, you can come in and do a tour. We host tours, I would say, at least once or twice a week, where you can come in and tour The Wharehouse. And trust me, if you’ve never seen anything like it for teens in the city, state or country. And it gives you an example of how our team can execute with fidelity in a very quick pace.

And then we will drive you around the neighborhood so you can see the housing, you can see where Kingswood is located. And you can see, you can see how the water [from Hurricane Ida] was up over my head and water lines on the fencing the devastation that this community has faced. And we continue to be resilient and press on because we have no choice. Email me () and then I’ll connect you with those on our team that can get you signed up for a lunch.

Charlie: I think being there in person, and interacting with the residents is very, very important [and] gives you a much better feeling for you know what it is that we’re trying to accomplish. Also, just a plug for EastSide charter. We have a very active mentoring program that’s an easy way to come and participate and be helpful, you know, 45 minutes a week.

Lindsey: Thanks so much for joining us. You’ve been amazing guests. And I feel like I’ve learned so much about the community.

Logan: Thank you for hosting us. And, Highlands, thank you for your support in the past, present and in the future. We can do this, but we have to do it together.

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