It’s probably not a vision most have, but it is one that Lyneir Richardson brought to the Walbrook section of Baltimore. The neighborhood in West Baltimore is home to around 3,000 residents, and is largely Black.
“The folks in Walbrook have pride in their neighborhood. The shopping center is a highly visible landmark. It needs a little love, but as we were looking into the purchase, we thought, ‘what if the community had the opportunity to own this?’” said Richardson, co-founder and CEO of Chicago TREND Corporation, a social enterprise with a mission to strengthen neighborhoods by catalyzing and accelerating strategic retail and other commercial development.
Richardson is talking about the Walbrook Junction shopping center, a 47,000-square-foot strip with tenants like Save-A-Lot, a Rite Aid, and other retail. With a background in catalyzing, accelerating and financing strategic retail development to strengthen neighborhoods, especially communities of color, TREND was a natural fit to explore the purchase of the property. But Richardson’s original thesis was that the shopping center could have a higher probability of success if local residents had a stake.
His first move was to contact Reinvestment Fund and the Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund (NIIF). Each funder provided a $2.9 million loan for the project, but also encouraged Richardson to activate the community. In a somewhat nontraditional approach, Richardson took to crowdfunding to seek investors. Local residents were given the chance to invest their own capital to purchase a stake in the shopping center.
There were skeptics, of course, but Richardson took on more than 30 Zoom sessions–some with two participants, some with up to 60–to share his vision with local residents. He connected virtually with the adjacent KIPP Baltimore school parents, church leaders, and community organizations about financial empowerment, intentional economic inclusion, and the company’s expectations.
“Then came the article in the Baltimore Sun,” Richardson said with a smile. “There’s a lot about this project that you can separate into before the article, then after.”
Although Richardson has a history of working in Baltimore, he is a Chicago native. He had the support of Reinvestment Fund and NIIF going into this project, but he knew what the project really needed–community trust. So when he was approached by the Baltimore Sun about a piece–slated to be written by a particularly prominent opinion writer–it was a risk. But Richardson has never been one to shy away from a risk.
“I had to show people I was credible. That the financial proposition was both believable and achievable,” said Richardson. “The reporting in Baltimore agreed with the intention and the vision, and it instantly reinforced our credibility. It changed the conversation.”
Richardson looked to civic partnerships to gain a strong foothold in Baltimore and reinforce the authenticity of the project. Working with the Mayor’s Office and local elected officials helped to facilitate community meetings, and relationships that Richardson had through his former work with Baltimore Development Corporation, opened doors.
“When you’re buying a property that’s already up and running, it isn’t about keeping it the same. It’s about realizing its potential,” said Richardson. “You can’t do that without the community’s voice. We made as much as 49% of the economic equity available to small impact investors, and they need to see themselves as the partners they are.”
TREND invested over $450,000 and raised $335,000 from over 130 individual investors — each of whom will own a portion of the shopping center. Investors directly benefit from the retail services in their communities while building both individual and community wealth.
With the community at the helm, Walbrook Junction has adopted an immediate focus on community programming. That includes sponsoring a community health fair and hiring locally. The lawn is mowed twice a week, and TREND is seeking funding for exterior improvements including signage, facade, roof, parking lot and concrete walkways. What was once a neighborhood eyesore has become a source of pride.
“The community investment sets this project apart from others–but what really makes it special is our pool of investors,” said Richardson. “There’s the 80-year-old grandmother who invested $1,000 because she wanted her grandson to know what ownership means. We have one of the leading local Black developers as an investor- -someone who is working on multi-million-dollar developments of his own, but sees the value in ours. And a charter school parent who drives by the center every day and wants her kids to have better options. This means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but the bottom line is that being a stakeholder means having a voice.”
The partnership with Reinvestment Fund was a linchpin in the project’s success. Its experience in commercial real estate finance helped TREND evaluate, underwrite, and finalize the transaction.
“Reinvestment Fund’s professional expertise went a long way in getting the project done. Structuring this type of financing isn’t always easy. There’s risk involved, but that’s the purpose of mission-oriented investment. Reinvestment Fund believed in the ambition of our mission,” said Richardson.