Historic South Atlanta sign welcome's people to the neighborhood, which is now a Purpose Built Community (Special: Focused Community Strategies)

By Maria Saporta

Atlanta-based Purpose Built Communities is gaining traction with a $6 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a total of seven new community members in its network.

Those two significant developments were announced at Purpose Built Communities 10th annual conference, meeting in Atlanta Monday through Wednesday at the Loew’s Atlanta Hotel in Midtown.

Historic South Atlanta sign welcome’s people to the neighborhood, which is now a Purpose Built Community (Special: Focused Community Strategies)

One of the new members is Historic South Atlanta, located next to Lakewood Heights. That means Atlanta now has three Purpose Built Communities, including the original PBC  community of East Lake, and Grove Park – which was announced at last year’s conference.

The community quarterback in Historic South Atlanta is Focused Community Strategies, a 40-year old nonprofit that had worked in East Lake so it was familiar with the Purpose Built “place-based” model that addresses multiple factors that contribute to distressed communities.

“I felt it was really natural to become part of the Purpose Built network,” said Jim Wehner, president of Focused Community Strategies (FCS). “It puts us alongside East Lake and Grove Park, and we are excited to be included and to be underneath the umbrella of Purpose Built Communities.”

FCS has been working in Historic South Atlanta for 19 years, so it already has a track record – primarily in renovating and building single-family homes and promoting neighborhood retail and job opportunities. The association with Purpose Built will help it build more expertise in areas of multi-family development.

Map of the Historic South Atlanta community (Special: Focused Community Strategies)

“Anything we do in the neighborhood, we want it to serve current residents and new residents,” Wehner said. “Purpose Built brings us 10 years of consulting. That’s priceless to a community nonprofit like us.”

And by being part of a national network, it will be able to learn about best practices from the other communities. The end goal will be to “scale into other communities” and have a greater impact in surrounding areas.

With the addition of Historic South Atlanta, there are now more Purpose Built communities in Atlanta than in  any other city in the network.

Before the announcement of seven new partners, Purpose Built had 20 members in its network, which was started 10 years ago.

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said that when she joined the national nonprofit in 2010, there were six or seven communities.

“Some were really struggling,” said Franklin, who is now the executive board chair of Purpose Built. “Today we are much better equipped to help network members understand their options.”

David Edwards, CEO of Purpose Built, said the growth of the nonprofit is accelerating, evidenced by the addition of seven new members.

“We are now in demand in a way we have never been before,” Edwards said. In fact, there are another 50 communities that are in the Purpose Built pipeline that eventually could join the network.

Warren Buffett and former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin at press conference in 2011 in Indianapolis (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Purpose Built estimates that there are about 800 distressed urban neighborhoods in the country, and so there’s a need to have many nonprofits take a similar approach to eradicate intergenerational poverty.

“We would love for everyone to take this approach so there would no longer be a need for us,” Edwards said.

The Robert Wood Johnson grant will help track and spread the Purpose Built model – especially as it relates to creating healthy communities.

“The Robert Wood Johnson grant of $6 million is the first major investment in Purpose Built Communities outside of our initial funders,” Edwards said referring to philanthropists Warren Buffett, Tom Cousins and Julian Robertson. “The world is moving to a place-based approach to poverty to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty. We are hoping to replicate the tool across our network.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant will help Purpose Built provide an online resource that will work as a clearing house for all the place-based efforts underway across the country.”

Franklin said she first started to engage with the foundation six or seven years ago.

“It’s where you live – your zip code – that determines so much about your health,” Franklin said. “We have concluded through our work, it’s education; it’s having an independent nonprofit to serve as the community quarterback; it’s having mixed-income communities; and it is community wellness.”

The foundation will research the 27 Purpose Built communities to better understand the determining factors that turn distressed areas into healthy communities.

In addition to Historic South Atlanta, other new network members include a community in Columbus, Ga., a community in Tallahassee, Fl., and two new communities in Cleveland, Ohio.

Franklin said communities have to be in the health business, the housing business and the education business.

“We are at a tipping point. It’s like there’s a snowballing effect,” Franklin said. “Now we have an independent group that’s going to assess our work. We are delighted by this. We are very proud to be in the position that Robert Wood Johnson is investing in use and investing in our model.”

The fact that Atlanta is the home of Purpose Built Communities should be a real source of pride for our town as it emerges into one of the leading nonprofits fighting poverty in our country.

It reminds me of Franklin’s campaign slogan: “If you make me mayor, I will make you proud.”

She did, and she does.

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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