Grant to aid Akron's Cascade Village

Knight Foundation gives $1.7 million to improve community with resident-led workshops, programs

A philanthropic organization with long Akron ties is touting a $1.7 million grant that will help a relatively new community build relationships and skills among its residents.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has awarded the three-year grant to Cascade Village and its developer/management company, the Community Builders.

The grant will be used to support a resident-led effort to provide workshops and services such as career and financial coaching and school and youth programming that will bring the community together.

''We are committed to helping unlock all of the power that people have and involve people in creating their own solutions,'' said Paula Ellis, vice president of strategic initiatives for the Knight Foundation, who is in town from Miami for an open house as part of an announcement this afternoon. ''The idea is that you have a more resilient community if there are more people creating solutions.''

The Miami-based Knight Foundation is focused on advancing journalism in what is called the digital age and investing in communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers, including the Akron Beacon Journal. It also focuses on projects that ''promote informed, engaged communities and lead to transformational change.''

Cascade Village is a mixed-income community of apartments, town homes and houses built in 2006 in what used to be the Elizabeth Park Homes housing project, one of the most troubled and impoverished areas of Akron, according to the foundation. Using a combination of public and private investments, the colorful row houses and units underneath the All-America, or Y-Bridge, have 242 apartments and town homes under management by the Community Builders. The community also has several single houses for sale and has six owned by residents.

Sixty-four percent of the residents of Cascade Village have some sort of subsidized assistance for their rentals, with the remaining tenants paying regular market rates for their units. The combination of the different types of renters and home owners makes for a
diverse community, said Lynette Rankin, executive director of Cascade Village/the Community Builders.

The Community Builders, which is headquartered in Boston, has a nearly 50-year history of creating affordable and mixed-income housing developments and then actively managing the communities, including programming, said Pat Clancy, president and chief executive of the Community Builders.

''Over the last decade, major investment created Cascade Village as a beautiful new neighborhood. Over the next decade, further investment will enable the families to achieve greater success and together create a thriving community,'' said Clancy, who will also be at the open house.

Clancy said his organization is not just about ''bricks and mortar.''

''It's not just about creating an attractive neighborhood. It's about having it be a place where families can be successful and it can truly have the elements of being a dynamic neighborhood for the families that live there.''

Jennifer Thomas, Akron program director for the Knight Foundation, said the Knight grant can help ''create an environment where neighbors can more easily come together to transform their neighborhood.''

Some ''shoestring'' programs have been ongoing, such as coffee hours, knitting groups, tutoring and holiday events, as well as programs operated in partnership with local organizations, such as a computer class run by the Akron Urban League.

The Knight grant, which began in January, has been used to increase the staff to work with the residents, including a youth and education counselor, finance coach and jobs and career coach.

There is also a part-time resident community organizer and some funds can also be used to offer stipends to residents to be historians for the community and to host neighborhood circles, which would include a neighborhood dinner at a resident's house, said Susan Wuscher, director of community life.

Wuscher and Rankin said now that they've hired the staff, they are ready to expand the programs.

Classes or programs that could be offered include financial planning or coaching for home ownership or entrepreneur opportunities, she said.

Community Builders is also working on offering Individual Development Accounts, which are like bank accounts and would have matching funds for residents to save toward a goal such as paying for a car, home or college tuition.

Said Ellis of the Knight Foundation: ''We're interested in empowering people to create their own solutions.

''It's a little different mindsetthan charity. With certain types of coaching and support, everyone can prosper.''

The grant is unique for the foundation in that it's involving an innovative approach to community building ''in a place we care deeply about in the hands of capable people who have delivered for over 45 years.''

Jeannie Wilson, a Cascade Village resident and community organizer, said: ''When I heard about this program, I got really excited. I couldn't help but think that my neighborhood would be like the one I grew up in — where everybody knew each other, and looked out for each other. You didn't have to go outside for help.''

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About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.