By spearheading a redevelopment program on one street in South Bend, Ind., the 495-member Greater South Bend-Mishawaka Association of REALTORS® gained invaluable local government support and formed strong new ties with local businesses and organizations.
It began with a session about the Better Block program at the 2013 REALTORS® Conference & Expo in San Francisco. Association CEO Myron Larimer and then-President Laurie LaDow were so inspired that they decided to try the program at home.
The Better Block concept focuses on engaging a neighborhood in envisioning ideal improvements concerning traffic, businesses, leisure, and well-being for a single commercial corridor and then temporarily implementing those ideals over the course of a weekend.
Larimer knew there were blocks in South Bend in need of just such a boost so SBMAOR reached out in partnership to the city, identified a few tired blocks of Western Avenue for a Better Block project, and committed its leadership and resources to sponsor the effort.
The first step was to secure a $15,000 Smart Growth Action Grant from the National Association of REALTORS®, to which SBMAOR added funds. Along the way, a number of community organizations contributed funds and assistance, and local businesses helped with in-kind services. The city provided $5,000 and its park service lent ample departmental resources ranging from Dumpsters to hand tools.
In July 2014, months before any hand tools were needed, Andrew Howard of Dallas-based Team Better Block visited South Bend to explain the concept at a public meeting that drew about 150 community stakeholders. The next day, he met with project leaders to work out specific strategies. Hours of planning, brainstorming, and recruiting followed. One month out, volunteer crews devoted weekends to clearing lots and painting. Just prior to the event, the city set up barrels to reroute traffic, and volunteers did some quick landscaping.
The October event weekend brought visitors from throughout the city to Western Avenue. The whole street-scape had been transformed with bike lanes, crosswalks, wider sidewalks, landscaping, and lighting. There were pop-up beer tents and food vendors, with an emphasis on the two local restaurants that were allowed to serve outside by special permit. A vacant lot became a dog park and a vacant building became a temporary art gallery. A local church timed its rummage sale to coincide with the Better Block event, and musicians enlivened the festive, family-friendly atmosphere. SBMAOR worked with a number of local media outlets that provided significant coverage throughout the process.
“We made a positive impact by bringing the neighborhood together in ways it never had been before,” says Larimer. Property owners discovered that by working together, they had strength in unity.
“We knew the project was a success even before the event, when business owners in the surrounding area, a couple streets away, started cleaning up and painting their properties. The effort was contagious.” he says.
Through its contact with two partners in particular, the Latin American Chamber of Commerce and La Casa de Amistad, SBMAOR gained a higher awareness of real estate issues affecting the predominantly Latino community of the Western Avenue corridor.
“With property values so low there, it had been difficult to get banks interested in financing transactions,” says Larimer. “Language and cultural barriers had been making it difficult for the community to access the lending industry, but we’re finding ways to bridge that gap. We’re beginning to open a dialogue with the local Mortgage Brokers Association to address the problem,” he says. “Thanks to the relationships we’ve built in the neighborhood, we’re looking forward to bringing new opportunities for property ownership and economic development, and also for careers in real estate within the Hispanic community.”
The process has gone a long way toward elevating SBMAOR’s status with local officials and the city government, Larimer says.
“Our goodwill, energy, and resources have earned us a voice. We’re finally being recognized and actually sought out for our input and support. Our goal had been to give greater, positive exposure to the neighborhood, and local businesses in particular, but the real success was much further-reaching than that.”
From this experience, the Better Block South Bend community group was formed to continue the work revitalizing South Bend one neighborhood at a time. For more on NAR’s Smart Growth grants, visit realtorparty.realtor.