Reaching for the Future: Creative Finance for Smaller Communities

Developments happen incrementally, but great cities happen strategically.

All too often, communities paralyze themselves because they do not believe that they have the resources to initiate change—and therefore they do not even try. The case studies in Reaching for the Future: Creative Finance for Smaller Communities illustrate how communities have used and combined various sources of public funds to facilitate dramatic change.

Every community has a choice. A community can choose to say it is “doing OK,” or it can decide to enhance its standing by changing. That is a choice. This publication attempts to provide tools for community leaders to choose to reach for the future.

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About the Report

This publication focuses on six communities. Some are built on historic traditions, others are built on natural location, and others are newly built. Two neighborhoods are recovering from severe blight and disinvestment, two are suburban developments that have created a sense of place, and two are small cities that were watching their downtowns fail. In each case, to succeed required a strategic vision, leadership, and creative financing. The leadership rose in different ways but came together in effective public/private partnerships. In each case, the conversation started with “what do we want to be” rather than “how do we pay for it.” In each case, the communities, each with a struggling economy, figured out how to finance their dreams.

The Financing Transformational Projects section identifies the most common public programs and how they might be used. It also addresses the use of public financing to catalyze private investment in public/private partnerships, and projects the strengths and weaknesses of those partnerships.

Finally, a checklist offers leaders, both public and private, an opportunity to analyze whether they are ready to move forward.

Profiled Communities

East Liberty, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
This Pittsburgh neighborhood is a lesson in public/private entrepreneurial culture. East Liberty’s revitalization was initiated by the public, built on by committed and savvy local developers, and repeatedly endorsed and supported by new public officials. A 20-year renaissance is still in the making.

City Center, Greenville, South Carolina
A multiterm mayor and great staff held to a strategic vision for downtown, using public dollars and public spaces to reframe the city center. Commitment to design excellence transformed an eyesore road/ravine into a stunning pedestrian bridge with public walkways, creating a new urban center with first-class amenities.

Allentown, Pennsylvania
Strong private leadership focused on the opportunity. Innovative state funding tools allowed state tax receipts to remain in downtown and to bankroll new construction of offices, a hotel, retail shops, and an arena. Strong local developers and business leadership were pivotal in embracing the new vision. Capitalizing on the city’s competitive advantages, Allentown is enhancing the entire Lehigh Valley region.

Orland Park, Illinois
In this Chicago suburb, the conversion of a classic suburban downtown to a modern mixed-use village was delayed by the recession. Public leadership, working with a citizen review board, stepped up its commitment—significantly increasing its financial risk—to realize the desired vision.

Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio
Major local corporations knew how to lead change—and decided to reverse the decline of the downtown and a close-in neighborhood. Partnering with the city, a new, focused organization was created, which was privately funded for multiple years. A sophisticated staff was hired, and the truly staggering results are still underway.

Sugar Land, Texas
Building on a rich history and an array of historic buildings, Sugar Land, a Houston suburb, used a vision and strong design sense to retool an obsolete manufacturing and processing plant as a mix of urban center uses.

Special Thanks

The ULI Creative Financing project was made possible through a generous grant provided by ULI Foundation Governor James R. Harris, whose contributions and valued counsel enabled the content and ideas found in this report to take shape. The ULI Foundation acknowledges James Harris for his longstanding commitment to support ULI’s efforts to advance the practice and understanding of responsible development and land use.

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