Neighborhood Building Blocks Coming Together

It seemed way too simple. When Jamestown’s neighborhood revitalization plan was finalized in 2010, one of the primary recommendations was to start a program that would offer small matching grants to clusters of property owners who made a commitment to exterior home improvements.

That recommendation gave rise to the Renaissance Block Challenge in 2011, a competitive program developed by the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation that invites proposals from groups of at least five neighbors starting in January each year. By May, the clusters with the most compelling applications, including excellent plans for building neighborhood camaraderie, are selected, and each participating property owner receives access to as much as $1,000 to match their investment into landscaping, painting, porch repair and other eligible improvements.

By now, 15 such clusters with 150 participating property owners have poured $400,000 into their homes, with 67 percent of that investment coming from the owners themselves. And in each cluster, improved communications between neighbors have yielded other gains, including the formation of neighborhood watch groups, community gardens, flower planting, and other efforts to cultivate cohesion and pride. Meanwhile, effective collaborations between these clusters and City Hall in areas such as tree planting, code enforcement, and public safety have demonstrated the importance of continuous dialogue between neighbors and city leaders.

Despite all of this activity, it still seems way too simple, like a drop in the bucket in the face of much bigger, systemic problems that confront the city’s neighborhoods and housing stock. Of course, it was never intended to be a quick, standalone fix. Instead, it was designed to fit within a constellation of other efforts-each attacking the problem of disinvestment from different angles. And that is gradually happening.

These wider efforts include an expected ramp-up in strategic demolition activity, thanks to a focus by city hall on bringing down the most problematic properties and the Chautauqua County Land Bank’s recent grant from New York state that will assist the demolition of up to 40 properties over the next two years. The land bank is also working on ways to prevent tax- and bank-foreclosed properties from spiraling into neighborhood eyesores by removing them from limbo and finding capable new owners.

Smaller efforts are also making a difference, including JRC’s “GROW Jamestown” campaign. The program to recognize excellent front yard gardens has resulted in hundreds of small garden signs proudly staked into flower beds across the city, while the community garden demonstration program, made possible through a partnership with the Chautauqua County Health Network, has revealed the community’s ability to find new and positive uses for underutilized spaces.

Other steps are needed to reinforce this momentum, from routine inspections of rental housing to finding ways to complement our older housing stock with an appealing mix of modern options. But the positive response to the Renaissance Block Challenge shows that progress is possible when the right partnerships align. For that program, support has come from the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation, Sheldon Foundation, Lenna Foundation, Northwest Savings Bank, the Chautauqua County Housing Trust Fund, the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce, the Jessie Smith Darrah Fund, and numerous businesses that have provided discounts to participants. Additionally, the Gebbie Foundation and City of Jamestown were among those who funded the plan that encouraged the program.

The neighbors, of course, are the most vital part of the partnership. If you want to become a partner, connect with your neighbors and propose a cluster for the 2014 Renaissance Block Challenge. For more information, contact Mary Maxwell at the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation at 664-2477, ext. 224, send an email to mary@jamestownrenaissance.org, or go directly to the JRC’s website at www.jamestownrenaissance.org to download a pre-application.

Renaissance Reflections is a biweekly feature with news from the front lines of Jamestown’s revitalization.