Lessons and optimism after a decade of East End investment

September 1, 2013 

Community Ventures Corp. President Kevin Smith posed at a redeveloped salvage yard on Third Street.

LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER Buy Photo

Community Ventures Corp., a Lexington-based nonprofit, became a permanent resident of the East End in 2003. Our journey in the East End revitalization began after CVC's board voted to purchase an old salvage yard and storage facility at the corner of Third Street and Midland Avenue.

After raising nearly $2.2 million in federal, state and local funding, it was our hope that CVC's initial investment would be a catalyst for more revitalization efforts.

At that time, many of the commercial buildings in the Third Street corridor had been vandalized and were vacant, and most of the property in the industrial zone was contaminated. We removed several tons of dirt from the site and renovated the old storage facility into office suites for start-up and growing small businesses. It was a good starting place — but it was just a start.

In the summer of 2004, one of the neighborhood's business owners called alerting me to an auction that was taking place within the hour of the vacant lot at Race and Third Street. It was rumored that someone wanted to open a liquor store on the property — something the neighborhood didn't need.

Although CVC only spent $6,000 for the lot, that purchase shaped CVC's strategy in the Third Street corridor for the next eight years. We began to purchase land from outside owners so that it could eventually be developed, with guidance from those living and working in the neighborhood.

In 2005, the city approached CVC about purchasing 513 Third Street. The building was privately owned and was in disrepair and unsafe. We were able to purchase it for $163,000 and had it demolished in 2006. CVC also purchased the old body shop on Lewis Street in 2006, for $248,000. The building is vacant pending future plans.

In 2007, due to budget crunches, the city decided to sell 12 of its properties located in the East End. Most of them were residential vacant lots. Some of the neighborhood residents were concerned the properties would eventually be owned by landlords not vested in the community. CVC stepped in and bought the properties for approximately $180,000. A local food group now uses them for community gardens after CVC installed irrigation lines.

In 2008, CVC targeted another environmentally contaminated property at 265 Midland Ave. Lead had leached into the groundwater and, with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency and state and private funds, CVC purchased it and began cleaning up the ground water. The cleanup is almost complete with the total cost to acquire and clean the property nearly $830,000.

CVC has purchased other residential lots from out-of-town landlords, including one that it learned about from a newspaper article featuring a rat-infested house in the neighborhood. The house was not habitable, but CVC purchased and demolished it.

Cleaning up blighted and contaminated land can be rewarding but it is not always pleasant. Acquiring land at the best prices must be done quietly. Public announcements only serve to drive up prices.

Although CVC will include neighborhood groups in future development decisions, quietly acquiring land can, unfortunately, arouse suspicion in neighborhood residents and advocates.

CVC has tried to maintain daily contact with residents through its housing and business programs. CVC has loaned over a half-million dollars to over 60 neighborhood residents to help them purchase their homes or start and grow their businesses.

We have also provided foreclosure counseling to residents, preventing 26 homeowners from going into foreclosure by helping them achieve a workout with their lender.

This kept these families in the neighborhood and kept the homes from being auctioned or bought by out-of-area landlords.

Recently CVC was approached by a group working with local store owners to increase the availability of fresh food. CVC provided $30,000 in operating support and established a $400,000 loan fund at one percent interest for store owners to rehab their stores and displays.

Although we have played only a small part when compared to all of the efforts in the East End, I am convinced the future of the East End is brighter than it has ever been.

As voices become even more unified, we look forward to working with neighbors and their representatives to design and implement projects that will turn unused land and blighted structures into vibrant places for people to live and work.

Kevin Smith is president and CEO of Community Ventures Corp.

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