By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on January 17, 2014
As important as it has been for Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank to select a leading architect to design an iconic football stadium, it has been just as important to recruit a visionary leader to help rebuild the neighborhoods around it.
The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation has selected Frank Fernandez, executive director of Green Doors, a nonprofit organization in Austin, Texas, that connects vulnerable individuals and families to greater social and economic opportunities. He will begin his new role on Feb. 3.
“We will get a stadium done, and in my opinion, it will be one of the finest stadiums in the world,” Blank said in an interview. “If we do that, and we are not successful in our community work on the Westside, then we would have failed. The stadium is one measure of success. The long-term measure of success will be transforming the communities around the stadium.”
Fernandez will be the Blank Foundation’s vice president of community development, and he will be its point person to implement the “Westside Neighborhood Prosperity Fund” — a program designed to contribute to the transformational revitalization and redevelopment of Vine City, English Avenue, Castleberry Hill and other adjacent neighborhoods.
The Blank Foundation conducted a national search to find one of the top community developers in the country — considering more than 600 “outstanding” candidates, according to its president, Penelope McPhee.
“The most important thing to us was to find an individual with a track record of success in the area of holistic community development,” McPhee said. “There are not that many of them. Frank is someone who has a track record of success, and he has demonstrated that in two neighborhoods in Austin. He’s got a very holistic understanding of this kind of work. It’s about jobs. It’s about education. It’s about parks and green space. You have to create a vision and culture in a community that can attract others.”
Fernandez, 39, is the son of Cuban immigrants who moved to Miami as adults. He remembered not having a phone, having their electricity turned off and starting school without speaking English.
Despite those challenges, Fernandez — who is 6’5”— and played football and basketball in high school, did well academically. He was able to get an academic scholarship to attend Harvard University, where he was awarded his bachelor’s degree in 1996. He then went to work as a financial analyst for Salomon Smith Barney in New York City, structuring multi-million dollar financial transactions.
“I learned a ton, and it was very intellectually stimulating,” Fernandez said in a telephone interview. “But at the end of the day, I didn’t feel I was making a difference.”
Partly because they were tired of the cold in the Northeast, he and his wife Tina (a native of Texas) decided to move to Austin, where he enrolled in graduate school at The University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. He then became deputy director of PeopleFund, a community development financial institution.
After five years with PeopleFund, he became executive director of Green Doors. During his tenure, Fernandez is credited for helping acquire, rehabilitate and construct affordable housing units that serve about 400 people a year in 28 properties. Most of the individuals are able to graduate from Green Doors so they can live independently with the help of the nonprofit’s supportive services such as increased access to sustainable employment. And that makes room for new individuals.
Fernandez has had a broad range of experiences in Austin. He received the “Vision Award” from Liveable City for his work creating HousingWorks. He also chairs the finance and audit committee for the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Austin’s transit agency, and he has served on its board since January 2010.
In partnership with the Austin Police Department, he also led the transformation of Austin’s Sweeney Circle block of the Pecan Springs neighborhood into a stable and thriving low-income housing, low-crime community with amenities for residents — including playgrounds, pocket parks, and community gathering places.
Now his task will be to try to replicate that kind of success in the neighborhoods around the new Falcons stadium — a blighted area that has had a series of disappointments and dashed hopes for community redevelopment. Since the Georgia Dome was built in the early 1990s, the population of Vine City and English Avenue has decreased from about 9,000 to 3,000.
Fernandez has toured the neighborhoods during his trips to Atlanta, but he literally wants to get his feet on the ground to fully understand the challenges facing the communities.
“My plan is to walk every square foot of the neighborhoods,” he said. “The thing that struck me was that this is a pretty blighted area with half of the neighborhood being vacant. One of the first things that needs to be addressed is all the vacant property.”
Fernandez, however, called the Westside “a singular opportunity to try to transform a community.” And because of the Blank Foundation and citywide focus on those communities, “there is an alignment of the stars to change an area where there has been disinvestment for so long.”
The Blank Foundation has pledged to invest $15 million by 2020 in the Westside communities. That will be matched by $15 million from Invest Atlanta with funding from the Westside Tax Allocation District.
But Blank said the foundation’s contributions will not be limited to $15 million. The entire foundation staff is focused on helping transform the Westside communities and supporting Fernandez’ efforts. Also, Blank said other partners will certainly be coming to the table.
Both Blank and Fernandez were asked if there would any special challenges given that Fernandez is of Latino descent working in a community that is primarily African-American.
“I was impressed with his background, his energy, his vision, his ability to communicate his vision and our vision, and his ability to work in a collaborative way. I was very impressed,” Blank said. “A lot of the population he has served has been very diverse, so that will not be a problem.”
Fernandez said it will be a matter of building trust and consensus among and between the various stakeholders.
“People are going to be skeptical at first. If you do what you say you are going to do, then you build credibility,” Fernandez said, adding that 50 percent of Green Doors’ residents are African-American. “The reality is that this project will succeed if there is leadership. When I see revitalization fail is when you don’t have consensus among the different groups.”
Ultimately Blank is optimistic that the stakeholders will come together around the common goal of creating one of Atlanta’s most vibrant communities — where people will have better access to education, jobs, quality housing, transportation, parks and all the amenities that would draw new residents and visitors to come — not just before or after a football game.
“The new stadium is incredibly important to Atlanta, the region and the state,” Blank said. “However, if you look at the potential impact on human lives and making systemic changes in that area for 40 to 50 years, that’s even more important. We have to make changes that are long-term and sustainable.”