“It’s a very big job to revitalize this area,” said Deidre Clark, a small business owner in Ensley, seated at a desk in her 600-square-foot office space on 19th Street West. Clark was referring to the self-described mission of REV Birmingham, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the city’s “economic development” — including, in part, revitalization of struggling neighborhood like Ensley.
Though Clark, like many others, has expressed appreciation for REV’s small business development arm — which involves entrepreneurial educational programs such as CO.STARTERS, in which Clark was a student — she remains skeptical of the organization’s efficacy in addressing the problems facing Birmingham’s less well-off communities. Others in the community have raised questions over the inherent conflict of being a nonprofit that receives public funding from the city of Birmingham for economic development efforts.
“I think they have a really serious communication problem, in that what they really do is not what people think they do or what they should be doing,” Clark said. “People don’t understand what their vision is or what their mission is. We were asking them about their plans for Ensley, and [REV] said, ‘Well, whose vision are you talking about?’ … They don’t really do a good job of trying to figure out what the people who live in a community want to see happen. They have a really hard time connecting with the community and figuring out an inclusive vision for revitalization.”
Criticisms of REV like these are commonplace, even among those whose opinions of the organization are positive overall. T. Marie King, an Ensley native who has collaborated with REV on several projects, such as the Ensley Cinema House, describes them as “accessible and always open to my ideas.” But she also suggests that REV has difficulty in “making sure the community understands why they are there.
“I think they can do a better job and be a little more proactive in their press and on their website — or anything they put out to the community — of clearly outlining what their job is,” King continued. “I do think that as residents and neighborhoods that are experiencing revitalization, we have to be a part of that process also. And though you may not like or understand what an organization is doing, it’s okay to hold an organization like REV accountable.”
A Simple Disconnect
“I have been critical of REV,” said one community organizer, who wished to remain anonymous due to his business partnerships with the organization. “I know the areas in which they’re trying to operate, and what they tout themselves as doing, I don’t see the fruit of that.
“The disconnect is really simple,” he continued. “REV says it’s an economic revitalization organization in urban areas. Well, the people who truly make the decisions for the organization, a lot of times, are executives. Executives don’t understand nor have ever had to deal with urban areas. And there’s a disconnect in how you’re going to execute your plans and your programs if you don’t have somebody that looks like [the people in] the areas into which you’re going.
“[They] say that they’re going to these areas to hold these meetings, [but] how effective can that really be? No offense, but you’re a cornball white guy going to the ‘hood. Do you really think they’re going to listen to you?”
The community organizer said that while REV succeeds at building up Birmingham’s image from an “optics” perspective, it does little to provide systemic, long-term changes to the communities it proposes to serve.
“[They shouldn’t] make it seem as if they’re really on the ground floor of trying to revitalize these impoverished areas,” he said. “That’s going to take some collaboration with the citizens. You can go and pick out somebody, put up a new business. That’s one thing. That’s on one corner in one little space. That’s not revitalization.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Birmingham City Councilor Sheila Tyson who, while a proponent of REV, thinks the organization could do more to address the underlying racial issues that play an important role in the communities REV is trying to assist.
“They need to hire a person who is accessible for black business owners in black communities,” Tyson said. “Place them in that area and that’s all they do. They don’t have anything to do with downtown or anything like that; someone who has a track record in these types of communities.
“They’re trying to get urban planners that think green this and green that is going to solve all our problems — 21st century hippies. REV wants to put people like that in the community to solve the problems. How can we relate to these people? All they want to do is bring a vegetable flea market or whatever and they’re just going in the wrong direction.”
The right direction, the community organizer suggests, is fairly easy to qualify: creating jobs. “If their goal is to go into a community and change it from an economic standpoint, there has to be jobs created for the citizens that live within that ZIP code,” he said. “You’ve got to start changing the income levels of the citizens. That’s economic empowerment. You change the level of economic status of the individual, and they become a lot more engaged and involved in their community, which means that they have a larger stake in what goes on and how it’s kept. Now we’ve got community revitalization. If that’s how you’re touting yourself, that’s what you’ve got to do… You’ve got to provide opportunities for these citizens in those ZIP codes to change their level of life.
“You’re going to the ‘hood,” he added. “These are people who may sling dope just to get by. They’re on food stamps. They’ve got minimum wage jobs or they’re just scraping to get by. They’re one hiccup away from being beneath a bridge. You’re talking about that kind of life. That’s real. Those kind of people, they ain’t got time. REV doesn’t want to go that deep… And instead of giving [their] resources to someone who’s willing to that, they’re keeping them and wasting them. The ZYP bikeshare program [is] cool, but what’s it doing for your critical mission?”
“Our mission is to create vibrant commercial districts by filling vacant spaces and growing sustainable businesses,” said REV CEO David Fleming in response. “We are likely to disappoint people who would like for REV to take on particular causes. We can’t be all things to all people, so we focus on being the best we can at our specific mission.”
A Careful Approach
The space is now blank where the words “REVIVE” and “Community” were once written in bold letters on a chalkboard attached to the facade of a dilapidated building on Ensley’s 600 block. The building is two doors down from the office of A.G. Callins and Associates, an office that now doubles as the venue for the Jazz House Project, an initiative headed up by Ensley native Brian Voice Porter Hawkins.
Hawkins said that he, along with other members of the group Ensley Alive, were approached by REV in November 2015, after a REV employee saw a TED Talk about an initiative to buy abandoned houses in some of Chicago’s troubled neighborhoods and repurpose them into art galleries, music halls and coffee shops.
“[REV] decided it would be a good idea to implement something like this in Ensley and went forward with the idea. A few of us at Ensley Alive were asked to be a part of the idea but as a group we decided to not be a part of it because there wasn’t enough time to bring in the idea and secure the funding for it.”
By January 2016 REV had secured the venue for the Jazz House Project and Hawkins was asked if he would like to be responsible for planning the programing. He accepted. As the director of the Bards and Brews program with the Birmingham Public Library as well as a performing poet who “has toured all over the country,” being in charge of “performance theater seemed like a natural thing for me,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins is quick to give credit to REV District Coordinator Brian Gunn, for the work that has been done in Ensley and said that without his efforts the economic development agency’s presence in one of Birmingham’s more troubled neighborhoods would be nonexistent.
But funding for the project has been an issue that REV has not addressed, Hawkins said. “We’ve been talking about creating more events and maybe filling out a whole month’s worth of schedules, but we’re stuck at where the funding is going to come from,” Hawkins said. “REV does not have much or any funding. They haven’t offered any money. We told them what we needed and that has not happened.”
Hawkins said that other than securing the venue — Fleming noted that the venue has been made available for temporary uses by its owner, Callins — and initially helping to market the new project, REV has not contributed financially or with day-to-day operations.
“I just don’t see where the funding will come from other than me and my teams putting things together to get funding,” Hawkins said. “We’re going to have to take our show on the road down the street to a bigger venue and run the show.”
Asked if there had been any discussion about providing funding for the Jazz House Project, Fleming said, “REV partnered with Voice on the first run of Jazz House Poetry as a temporary demonstration project funded by a small State Council for the Arts grant. That funding has run out. We’ve talked with Voice about helping him pursue a business model that would make the project sustainable.”
Another common question from community leaders is how does REV spend the money allocated to them by the city, specifically in terms of executive salaries? A look at REV’s most recent IRS records show that the organization spends $246,000 in compensation for officers, directors, trustees and key employees and $549,031 for other salaries and wages.
According to Fleming, “REV’s CEO salary is $140,000.12. No board member of REV is compensated for their service. Salary ranges are bench-marked to similarly sized area nonprofits. It is important to note that for every dollar of city funds committed to REV, $2.73 is raised from the private sector and other sources.”
Darrell O’Quinn, the executive director of Move I-20/59, is a neighbor of Fleming. O’Quinn also serves as the neighborhood association president for Crestline North and believes REV has been “really important in making progress,” in many of Birmingham’s 99 neighborhoods.
“I think everyone wishes that [REV] had more resources to take on bigger initiatives and spread them out more across the city,” O’Quinn said. “I think REV is trying to focus their efforts on the places that need the most assistance and the return on investment is the greatest. They definitely want to do things that are going to have the greatest capacity for positive change and because of their limited resources, I believe they’ve had to take a careful approach where downtown is the economic engine for not only the city but the state. And there are 35,000 jobs in this district.”
Despite the work being done, O’Quinn believes there is still “tremendous room” for revitalization in the neighborhoods. “Ensley is one example. You have a lot of interests there, you have great infrastructure in terms of downtown streets… and the ability for that area to be a thriving commercial and retail district. All of the pieces are there. You just need the people and the willingness to invest. On the other hand, you got places like Eastlake and Woodlawn where they’ve been active and trying to bring vibrancy and revitalization. Again they have to be careful with their limited amount of resources.”
“They Don’t Want to Get Criticized”
Fleming maintains that REV not only welcomes input but prioritizes it. “Our first core value is ‘Community Leads’ which means input from stakeholders, positive or negative, is not only welcome, it’s required for us to do our work well,” he said.
But some in the community feel that REV is less than receptive to criticism.
“I don’t want to be named because if I say how I really feel, I’ll get an angry phone call from REV,” said one downtown business owner, describing a specific incident in which she had received such a call.
Several other members of the Birmingham business community have referred to REV’s defensiveness against any perceived criticism, with some even suggesting that the organization’s public relations tactics border on intimidation.
During the course of this three-part series, a number of business owners said they would not want to be identified in print because of the aforementioned reaction from REV. REV’s Chief Press and Investor Relations Officer Atticus Rominger initially refused to respond to any criticism lobbied against REV in this series without being told the names of those who made the criticism in order, he said, to “frame a response in proper context.”
“I’d have to watch out for my kneecaps,” joked another local business owner, also on the condition of anonymity. “They’re kind of like the mob.”
“The thing about [REV] is, sometimes you’ve got to be willing to take the punch,” said the anonymous community organizer. “The problem is they’re not really willing to get into the ring. They don’t want to get criticized. They’re afraid of getting hit in the jaw. They don’t want to have to answer the tough questions… I think they want to, in my heart of hearts, but they just don’t know how to.”
The downtown businesswoman who also did not want to be identified said something similar. “I don’t trust REV as far as I can pick them up and throw them,” she said. “For me to respect leadership, it has to be somebody who wants to know what their weaknesses are so they can learn from them, and I don’t think they are someone you can do that with. Instead of saying, ‘Hey, why don’t we listen to what resources local businesses might need?’, it’s more of an ‘I know what I’m doing’ mentality.
“Instead of an ally, I view them as more of an irritant,” she added.
“I think they’ve got to get a handle on their communications with the communities,” added Deidre Clark. “The more they are able to talk to those people, the better they will be able to serve those communities and prove themselves and make significant progress.”
Vibrancy and revitalization can be difficult to quantify. As made evident by the responses from business owners and community leaders alike, truly gauging the impact of these efforts can be complicated and can bring a fair share of criticisms. Fleming said he measures these efforts differently than he did when REV was formed in 2012.
“ I think back then we laid out things we knew we needed to do that were largely based on our gut saying so and left room for ideas we didn’t think of like ZYP to come along,” Fleming said. “I think now we’re really trying to define more of those measurements of success going forward. We believe a lot of those definitions of success are drawn from our core mission of filling vacant spaces. Are there less vacant spaces in a place? Will there be more businesses in five or 10 years than there are today? To a certain degree the quality of that — is it serving the neighborhood or is it drawing people?”
For Fleming, establishing these types of benchmarks are an important part of REV’s mission. Numbers are important, he said, “because numbers help define what you’re doing and maybe where you’re not succeeding.”
But Fleming sees REV’s success as being more than numbers.
“How do people see the city? We’re not necessarily responsible for all the accolades Birmingham is getting but if some of the things we’re doing lead to recognition of Birmingham by some outside entity for its — you fill in the blank — then we would say that is some measure of success,” Fleming said.
“I think I would also say I’m proud of the part we’ve helped play in Birmingham, as a whole, sort of reclaim a love affair with itself. And that’s still got a long way to go and I know we are not at all solely responsible for that. But I know we’ve been a part of that.”