Midtown Raleigh News

Southeast Raleigh Assembly no longer serves its community, critics say

Chandra Wells gets a kiss from her client Simba as she grooms him Thursday in her The Wizard of Paws shop on North Tarboro Street in Southeast Raleigh. The Southeast Raleigh Assembly, a nonprofit organization, is supposed to help economic development in the area.
Chandra Wells gets a kiss from her client Simba as she grooms him Thursday in her The Wizard of Paws shop on North Tarboro Street in Southeast Raleigh. The Southeast Raleigh Assembly, a nonprofit organization, is supposed to help economic development in the area. cliddy@newsobserver.com

A city-funded organization created more than a decade ago to stimulate economic growth in Southeast Raleigh is coming under fire, accused of failing in its core mission.

Community leaders, including a Wake County commissioner, are voicing concerns about the Southeast Raleigh Assembly, a task force created in 2001 with the mission of “developing long-term economic development solutions for southeast Raleigh.” Critics say the organization, which has since become a nonprofit, largely funded by tax dollars, is no longer focused on that goal.

“The original goal was to look at economic competitiveness in the Southeast Raleigh area and to create more opportunity for the area to be thriving,” said Wake Commissioner James West, who helped found the assembly. “I don’t see as much of that being done.”

Rita Anita Linger, president and CEO of the nonprofit, says her organization has been successful so far in achieving its goals, pointing to a recent in-house report that lists more program participants than ever.

“We can only get better at doing that, but we’re doing well now,” she said.

Those who are questioning the nonprofit’s mission say it should do more to help business owners such as Chandra Wells, 55, who opened the Wizard of Paws pet shop on North Roxboro Street in April. Wells said Thursday that her business is off to a good start but that the organization hasn’t communicated with her. .

“I do need some help,” Wells said. “I wish I could get some support, but I am doing fine.”

Wells is keeping her store open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and by appointment on Sunday. Advice from someone with small-business expertise would be helpful, she said.

Measurable outcomes

Southeast Raleigh encompasses historically African-American neighborhoods that have lagged behind the rest of the city economically, even as the area bounces back from the recession. According to 2008-12 census data for the largest ZIP code that includes Southeast Raleigh, the unemployment rate in the area averaged 9.5 percent, compared with 5.4 percent forWake County. In the entire county, 10.9 percent of people live below the federal poverty line. In Southeast Raleigh, that proportion is nearly doubled at 20.5 percent.

Wallace Green, president of the Raleigh Area Development Authority, a city-funded community economic development organization, says Southeast Raleigh is not growing at its full potential.

“There is no comprehensive economic development strategy that is specifically designed to benefit Southeast Raleigh,” Green said.

Since the early 2000s, the city has directed money to two agencies to help Southeast Raleigh experience economic growth, but initiatives have yet to show results. The Raleigh Business and Technology Center, set up in 2000 to help small businesses, was cut off from city funding last year after an audit found evidence of possible fraud. Plans to relaunch the incubator have been halted after area leaders complained that they were being left out of the process.

Though the Raleigh Business and Technology Center is no longer funded by taxpayer dollars, the city allocated $207,000 to the Southeast Raleigh Assembly this year, nearly 80 percent of the nonprofit’s estimated revenue. The rest comes from private sources, fees and charges. Since 2002, the Southeast Raleigh Assembly has received more than $2.5 million from the city.

Less than 2 percent of the organization’s expenditures – approximately $4,000 – went to programs and scholarships. Its biggest expense is staff salaries, an estimated $138,000 last year. As president and CEO, Linger’s salary is $68,000. There are two full-time staff members.

The nonprofit offers 14 wide-ranging programs under a self-described mission to “build community capacity and enhance the quality of life for Southeast Raleigh residents.”

“Our mission is our measure, and that is enhancing the quality of life,” Linger said. “How we do that is very specific to each case that comes in.”

The most popular program is “Dancing in the Park,” a free outdoor exercise class at John Chavis Memorial Park to promote health and well-being. The nonprofit reported an attendance of 9,000 last summer. At a June event, about 200 participants shimmied to Lil’ Jon as an instructor led them in a belly-dancing class.

In contrast, a program that provides counseling to potential homebuyers served just 15 people.

“(The original task force was) more issue driven,” community activist Octavia Rainey said. “When I look at this assembly, what I hear more about is their Dancing in the Park.”

The nonprofit is funded by the city’s Economic Development Fund. The assembly receives the second-largest amount of the 13 organizations funded, more than the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Raleigh Alliance.

“The intent is that they are filling gaps in services related to economic development,” said James Sauls, Raleigh’s economic development manager.

However, the fund also supports organizations that enhance quality of life, Sauls said.

By comparison, primarily service-oriented nonprofits such as Interfaith Food Shuttle are funded through the city’s Human Services grant process, which provided $1,261,000 to 36 organizations this year. The domestic violence resource center Interact received $75,000, and the Healing Place, a homeless shelter, received $100,000.

Before the recession hit, an earlier incarnation of the Southeast Raleigh Assembly listed accomplishments including improving the streetscape, developing a redevelopment plan for the Garner Road area, and hosting a four-week seminar on real estate development.

In the past few years, the nonprofit has listed accomplishments including mediating community disputes, educating on voter engagement and hosting a two-day leadership institute for nonprofit and small-business leaders. Later this month, it will sponsor a self-esteem workshop called “Embracing Your Inner Beauty Queen.”

“I don’t think that they’re really in touch with the growing issues that (the original task force) addressed,” said Rainey.

A change in focus

City Councilman Eugene Weeks, who is on the nonprofit’s board of directors, says the organization has expanded programming since it became a nonprofit. It has also enlarged the geographical area it serves to include not only Southeast Raleigh but also “other interested Raleigh residents.” The shift was natural for the organization, Linger said. But critics question whether the change is too far afield from the assembly’s original Southeast Raleigh economic development mission.

City Councilman John Odom says the goal of the nonprofit was to specifically target Southeast Raleigh.

“Southeast Raleigh is an area that needs help,” he said. “That’s a part of the city that we need to shore up.”

The task force was created “to concentrate on long-term economic development in Southeast Raleigh,” according to 2001 documents outlining its formation, and included a city-appointed assembly comprising 45 members of the community. Commissioner West called it a grass-roots approach.

The current mission statement is far broader but short on specifics: “We are now a flagship nonprofit organization whose mission is to facilitate community capacity building in its most authentic sense, economic development, sustainability, relationship building ... with community and business, and individual citizen empowerment all designed to enhance the quality of life for Southeast Raleigh residents.”

Lonette Williams, chair of the Central Citizens Advisory Committee, says the nonprofit is not engaging with the community, an ongoing problem in the area.

“I just don’t understand how they are doing the assessment and how the needs are being determined,” she said.

Linger, a Manhattan native, is a Saybrook University doctoral candidate whose research interests include spiritual psychotherapy and social transformation. Under her leadership, the plan of improving “economic well being through resource development, housing and business creation,” has been replaced by pledges of “enhancing the quality of life.”

“As the assembly evolved from a city entity, it began to qualify its mission based on its new structure,” said Brad Thompson, an early co-chair of the task force.

‘We’re doing well now’

Linger maintains that the nonprofit is doing its job. According to its most recent report, it succeeded in advocating for upgraded bus shelters and training 50 teenagers to become anti-bullying mediators.

Councilman Weeks says the organization is well-run.

“All the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed,” he said.

But community leaders want to see a return to the original plan. “They’re not working with the neighborhood,” Williams said. “A communitywide initiative is what’s needed.”