Ask Corey Dupree what African Americans can bring to city development, and he says, “I love this question.”
African-American developers “bring perspective” on the power of development to serve comprehensive needs.
“Our objective is to make sure these communities rise from, quote-unquote, ‘the rubble,’ because the phoenix does rise from the ashes,” said Dupree, a partner in the planned transformation of the former Bishop McDevitt High School into an eco-friendly complex.
African Americans comprise about half of Harrisburg residents, but they have traditionally “limited ourselves to a minority stake in projects,” said developer Ryan Sanders. But now, behind the plans for several high-profile projects are African Americans with ties to the city and commitments to community.
In the wake of nationwide protests demanding racial justice—and by extension, equal opportunity—these developers envision impact that goes beyond bricks and mortar.
In Harrisburg’s Allison Hill, Tarik Casteel is building TLC Cornerstone Renewal, with 50 affordable apartments and townhouses and a community center near N. 15th and Walnut streets.
“I picked that area because it’s one of the worst areas in the city,” said Casteel. “I’m from the community, born and raised in Harrisburg, and I wanted to show that this can happen if you want it to.”
Casteel is president of TLC Construction & Renovations, and its nonprofit arm, TLC Work-Based Training Program. The nonprofit trains such hard-to-place people as veterans and the formerly incarcerated, hiring them for projects on the construction side.
“When you’re using these same people in the community, it gives them a sense of pride because they helped build where they live,” said Casteel. “When people take pride in where they live and pay taxes, they’re not going to tear up where they live because they’ve got skin in the game.”
In 2018, Casteel and his aunt, Juanita Edrington-Grant, imprinted the city landscape with the Harrisburg Uptown Building (HUB) with apartments for homeless veterans, plus the adjacent HUB Veteran Housing Campus. It’s about taking the reins and ensuring that the builders who build and the people who benefit “look like me,” he said.
Down in Midtown, Sanders is part of the team behind the planned creation of Jackson Square on N. 6th Street. The partnership, which includes NFL veterans and brothers LeRon and LeSean McCoy, looked at that row of deteriorating buildings with deep roots in Harrisburg’s African-American history—including Jackson House, a Green Book-listed rooming house that hosted legends of jazz and sports—and saw “a great opportunity to preserve culture and history.”
And then back at the top of Allison Hill, Garry Gilliam, Jr., is a partner with Corey Dupree, DeZwaan Dubois and Jordan Hill in The Bridge, a venture planning inner-city eco-villages, starting with the McDevitt campus. The idea emerged, in part, from the time Gilliam, Dupree and Dubois spent as students on the comprehensive Milton Hershey School campus, where they knew that the basics of housing, food, education and security were assured.
When those necessities are met—and The Bridge expects to encompass greenhouses, classrooms, workspace and recreational options—then people see hope, said Gilliam.
“I don’t believe you need to leave Harrisburg for that,” he said. “It can be done with mixed-use development, providing resources for those in those communities, and in a way creating a microcosm of Milton Hershey to break generational curses.”
As the new federal courthouse and state archives accelerate development pressures, the city is working with developers to “make sure that the first thought in new development addresses long-term concerns of the community,” said city Planning Director Geoffrey Knight.
Diversity among developers brings a fresh perspective to those conversations, Knight said. Many African-American developers have told him they’re striving for impact.
“It’s less of a focus on things that are financially viable,” he said. “It’s more of a focus on, ‘This is my community. This is a project that means more to me than just dollars.’”
“We’re of the community,” he said. “We’ve got the pulse of the community.”
Never Leaves You
Development that expands opportunity in a traditionally neglected or oppressed community kickstarts change from within, Sanders said. African Americans in development also offer role models for younger generations.
“If we want them to do more, we have to show them more,” Sanders said.
Too often, Black youth see only athletics or entertainment as their way out of inner-city neighborhoods, said Gilliam. Seeing adults succeed in other fields, including real estate and development, presents pathways to the full scope of careers.
Casteel positions his projects to create economic opportunities and to stand as showcases of possibilities.
“People need the opportunity to show what they can do,” he said.
To him, the HUB demonstrated that “African Americans can develop and build a good project and can work together to build their own community,” he said.
Indeed, the city “wants to hear from different people,” said Economic Development Director Nona Watson. Diversity brings people who have experienced discrimination firsthand—something that “never leaves you.”
“You want to give back in a way that will help keep other people from experiencing what you experienced,” she said.
Diversity “creates additional opportunities for individuals who may not have had opportunities to necessarily get into that field,” added city Business Development Director Jamal Jones.
“When you’re working with people who are the decision makers that are from diverse backgrounds, it provides opportunity to other people because there’s a certain level of understanding that there may have been—traditionally, historically—disparity in regard to opportunities. It levels the playing field,” he said.
African Americans in Harrisburg development aren’t a novelty, Jones pointed out. Today’s big-project developers are standing on the shoulders of those who have made smaller contributions over the years.
“We should be at a point where this is more of the norm, as opposed to the unicorn,” he said.
When more citizens have access to education and jobs with livable wages, “you’ll see the byproduct in leaps and bounds, from more citizens that can contribute to your tax base, to bringing more people into Harrisburg,” he said.
Barriers remain. Closed doors to the banks and networks that control the money and jobs. Decades of redlining that depress the value of black-owned properties and curtails generational wealth. State contracts awarded to far fewer minority- and women-owned businesses than available, according to the Pennsylvania 2018 Disparity Study.
African-American developers say they are working around and through those obstacles. Casteel has built a strong network of relationships with trusted partners. Sanders’ funding sources include community-impact financial institutions.
“Economic development is one of the building blocks we need to address some of the systematic issues we have,” said Sanders. “I’m always for doing all community first, so you have enough individuals who are looking to do for our own community, and we’ll have the village that is needed to help produce the next generation of leaders.”
Dupree sees stereotypical views of Black men as intimidating or not knowledgeable. But when people realize they are savvy men who know what they want and understand what systematically oppressed people need, “that’s what is meant by ‘by the community, for the community.’”
“We’ve come so far, but we still have a ways to go to be able to have that equal access seat at the table,” he said. “I say it all the time. I’m proud of Harrisburg. When we say that Harrisburg is going to look a lot different in five years, we genuinely mean that.”
Failure to cultivate diversity among developers keeps a city from moving forward and prevents attention from reaching blighted neighborhoods, Watson said.
“Yeah, you have a thriving downtown area, but what happens with the schools, what happens to the neighborhoods?” she said.
At the direction of Mayor Eric Papenfuse, Watson is researching “gap financing” to help developers improve return on investment for less remunerative projects.
In large part, African-American developers “don’t just do development,” said Casteel.
“We do community development,” he said. “We work with the community as a whole. Development isn’t just about building a house. You’ve got to build community.”