Last Thursday I had dinner in downtown Kinston with the leadership team for the Local Government Federal Credit Union (LGFCU) at a new restaurant, Sabor, featuring wonderful Latin cuisine. Maurice Smith, LGFCU’s Chief Executive Officer, chose to hold his team’s annual planning retreat in a location where they could learn first-hand about the work of the School’s Development Finance Initiative (DFI). It also was important to Maurice that his team spend time in the type of community where many of their members live. Kinston was a good choice.
DFI “partners with local governments to attract private investment for transformative projects by providing specialized finance and development expertise.” It likely would not exist but for the initial and subsequent investment of millions of dollars by LGFCU. The credit union’s early and ongoing investments have allowed DFI to gain traction with important development projects, refine its model, serve units otherwise unable to cover our modest fees, and become financially self-sustaining. I frequently hear from local government managers and elected officials who have worked with DFI that it is one of the most important programs in the history of the School.
Marcia Perritt, DFI’s Associate Director, was at the dinner and offered an overview of DFI’s work in Kinston over the last five or more years. Marcia is the perfect person to talk about our work there because she has been DFI’s point person working closely with the city on their downtown and neighborhood redevelopment projects. Tony Sears, Kinston’s City Manager, also attended the dinner and joined in the discussion along with others from the city. It was a wonderful opportunity for LGFCU’s leadership to learn how their investment in DFI has made a real difference in Kinston and by extension in other North Carolina communities. It also revealed how progress in a place like downtown Kinston requires commitment, patience, and dedication over a long period of time. It is hard work and Kinston still has a long way to go.
The following morning Marcia partnered with Stephen Hill, founder and owner of Mother Earth Brewing located in downtown Kinston, to lead a walking tour that highlighted the city’s progress and ongoing challenges. It was fascinating.
Stephen is a Kinston native who cares deeply about the revitalization of his hometown, and he has worked hard and invested in many local projects. For example, we met at the Mother Earth Motor Lodge, which is a 1960s era motel that Stephen completely renovated and restored in retro style with the assistance of Marcia and DFI. The LGFCU team and I stayed there the previous night and it was great. Stephen converted another downtown property—the former Farmer & Merchants Bank building—into his personal residence and a luxury, boutique hotel, The O’Neill. Stephen also owns a number of other downtown buildings and has bought and restored houses in an adjacent neighborhood. Many of them are occupied by long-time Kinston residents and new artists who are finding a home there. Stephen also owns Mother Earth Spirits, a downtown business that produces wonderful gin (or so a friend tells me). Of course it also helps Kinston that Vivian Howard returned home and built The Chef and the Farmer restaurant into a national brand thanks to its great food and her PBS series, A Chef’s Life. Howard also has created other downtown food ventures—including The Boiler Room in a building bought and preserved by Stephen Hill.
A few takeaways from my trip to Kinston.
DFI is having a real impact in Kinston and other struggling communities in North Carolina. One reason is the leadership, creativity, and dedication of Tyler Mulligan. Tyler is the Director of DFI and he is its visionary leader. He has assembled a great team of colleagues working with him at DFI. Marcia is another reason for DFI’s impact. Stephen Hill and others in Kinston credit Marcia and DFI with being the key factor in their progress so far and going forward. As we walked along the streets of Kinston any number of people driving by recognized and waved to Marcia. She is quick to point out to everyone that she has a great team of people working with her at DFI and the School. The entire team of project managers and others at DFI are having a similar impact in many communities.
Tyler couldn’t make the trip because he was teaching his MPA course on community revitalization, and the following morning he was meeting with another local government about a DFI project. Tyler’s course has come to be known by graduate students at “the DFI course” and Tyler has “been told by graduate students that they mentioned DFI in their application materials and came to Carolina for the opportunity to work with DFI.”
LGFCU has been a great partner and their investment in DFI has been critically important in making progress in many North Carolina communities. LGFCU invested in DFI at a time when it was an idea rather than a proven concept. The School didn’t have the resources to get the program up and running, and without LGFCU’s investment it might never have happened. Thanks to the visionary leadership of Maurice Smith and his colleagues, however, LGFCU has made a real difference in the life of Kinston and other communities where there members are located. It was wonderful for Maurice and his team to spend time in Kinston and see in concrete terms the difference they have made. The School’s partnership with LGFCU will continue to have a major impact for years to come.
DFI illustrates that the challenges associated with implementing truly innovative projects inside the university can be worth the effort. It is challenging in so many ways to carry out an initiative like DFI inside Carolina. The human resources rules and other systems conspire at every turn to make it difficult. The private development world expects things to happen faster and easier than they typically happen in the University. Tom Thornburg, Michael Vollmer, and others have spent untold hours working with Tyler and his team to be sure that we are doing things in ways that are effective and consistent with existing policies and procedures. That often involves arguing for exceptions and flexible interpretations—and the time and effort required can be exhausting. Many thanks to Tyler and everyone else, especially LGFCU, who has helped to support DFI and its work over the years. Special thanks to Ashley Ruffin, LGFCU’s Chief Strategy Officer, for organizing everything in Kinston and for including me.