Communities Unlimited - Texas Panhandle Town Hall

Join this Town Hall type of event to learn how Communities Unlimited is working to better the Texas Panhandle. Communities leaders, current/potential business owners, and individuals are all invited to learn how the CU mission is going to make the Texas Panhandle a better place to live and work.


Dermott Challenged in Quest for Community Sustainability

DERMOTT, AR — Dermott, Arkansas, had a lot of potential, with good job sources nearby, a large younger population and the desire to improve. But it also had several issues that were subverting its growth potential, and city officials weren’t sure where to begin to address the problems.

They needed a way to bring community sustainability to their city, as well as to bring their utilities and emergency services into compliance.

Dermott lies in the Mississippi River Delta region of southeast Arkansas in what has traditionally been a high-poverty area of Arkansas.

One of the goals of Dermott’s city leaders was to build the community’s sustainability by encouraging residents to start their own businesses. The building blocks were there, but city leaders needed a solid foundation on which to build.

The answers came when they applied for a foundation grant to help bring a grocery store to the city. In response to the application, a feasibility study was requested.

Communities Unlimited was called in to conduct that study. It was the start of a relationship that would give Dermott hope for much more than just a grocery store.

One of the goals of Dermott’s leaders was to jump-start local business ownership. Communities Unlimited brought in members of its Community Sustainability team to evaluate what tools would be needed to achieve this goal.

In late 2018, Communities Unlimited hosted a “How to Start a Business” workshop.

Fifteen potential entrepreneurs showed up to the workshop.

Of the 15 at the workshop, eight participants signed scopes of services to continue working with Communities Unlimited on developing their business ideas.

The approach in Dermott is a perfect example of how Communities Unlimited doesn’t use a one-size-fits-all approach to community sustainability. Representatives from Communities Unlimited started by meeting with city or town leaders and getting a feel for the town from the inside out.

Understanding that one of the best ways to build a community is to build community pride, Communities Unlimited works with those who have been successful in town, longtime residents with a sense of pride and history, and those with ideas on how to grow the local economy. They can be strong pillars in revitalizing a community.

While working with Dermott leaders on community sustainability, Communities Unlimited staff discovered the city had utility issues it was trying to address.

Dermott was looking to obtain funding to pay for several water and sewer system improvements, including rehabilitating its aging water tank and improving the wastewater system, which was facing regulatory compliance issues. The city was asking for about $4.5 million in funding for the improvements.

As part of obtaining the rate information, Communities Unlimited conducted a rate study for Dermott and determined the city would need to increase its water and sewer rates in order to facilitate the water and sewer project. The city council agreed and increased the rates.

The water and sewer project brought forth another issue. It was discovered that the city lacked a proper map for properties within the city limits.

Mayor Walter Donald asked Communities Unlimited about GIS mapping. The plan is to initiate a GIS mapping project about the same time the water and wastewater improvements are being made, so the water and wastewater system can be mapped properly as it is upgraded and new meters put in. It will also update the maps for emergency services.

Dermott was still looking to get its own grocery store. But the earlier feasibility study revealed one couldn’t be supported with Dermott’s current population.

But representatives of Communities Unlimited had a plan: opening a farmer’s market. The seasonal market could serve as a test run for a grocery later down the line. It could also give local farmers a place to sell their fruits and vegetables and fuel the entrepreneurial spirit growing in the city.

Dermott has several projects underway, and several goals yet meet. But one thing is certain — Communities Unlimited will be there every step of the way.


Sardis Provides Cascade of Products for CU

SARDIS, MS — Sardis is a town with big hearts and a strong sense of community. But like many rural towns, it has struggled in the last few years to maintain its population. The town has lost about 20 percent of its residents since the 2000 U.S. Census, according to a 2018 estimate.

Communities Unlimited first began working with Sardis in 2013, when then-alderman Tommy Rayburn requested assistance with developing water system policies and procedures.

Communities Unlimited worked with Sardis officials for about six months as they developed proper policies and procedures for their wastewater system. The project was completed successfully, but Communities Unlimited let officials know that they would still be available anytime they were needed and would be just a phone call away.

By November 2017, Sardis was looking to make some improvements to its wastewater system. They were hoping to fund the project with money from the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), but the application process was a very detailed one.

Communities Unlimited assisted with the application process, and the city was awarded a $450,000 grant for  improvements to its pump stations, as well as other parts of the system.

To ensure the continued success, Sardis Mayor Lula Palmer and Water/Wastewater Systems Operator Katera Newman called on Communities Unlimited for assistance.

Sardis wastewater system had fallen out of compliance with regulations from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) for its daily monitoring. Communities Unlimited assisted in setting up and properly maintaining the systems Daily Monitoring Reports (DMRs) and provided technical assistance to the wastewater operator to help meet the MDEQ requirements. Soon, the system was back in compliance and being monitored properly.

With the wastewater system in better shape, Communities Unlimited and town officials turned to another of the town’s issues — its lack of a grocery store.

Several residents and town officials expressed a desire to open a grocery store in Sardis so residents wouldn’t have to drive to the next town for groceries. Town officials were told about Communities Unlimited’s Healthy Foods program, which works to bring healthy foods to “food deserts,” or places that lack a proper venue for purchasing fresh foods.

Communities Unlimited agreed to do a feasibility study to see if a grocery store could be located in Sardis, and whether the town could sustain such a facility.

Unfortunately, the study concluded that a grocery store wasn’t feasible, given that two dedicated grocery stores and a grocery/department store were located just a few miles away in nearby Batesville.

But residents really wanted their own grocery, and Communities Unlimited wasn’t finished finding a way to try to make that desire a reality.

They decided, instead, to start smaller with a pop-up farmers market.

The town held a market in June 2019. It was so successful, the city government passed a resolution to keep the farmers market going.

Meanwhile, another investment was taking shape at nearby Sardis Lake, and Communities Unlimited saw an opportunity to encourage small businesses and entrepreneurs to get involved.

Greg Davis is the tourism director for the Sardis Lake area, is working on developing the Sardis Lake Project.

The project looks to bring in about $100 million in developments around the lake, from resorts to souvenir shops and restaurants.

Communities Unlimited brought in staff from its Entrepreneurship program to help train potential business owners who want to take advantage of the potential influx of tourists. The “How to Start a Business” workshop provided a starting point for future entrepreneurs who wanted to know not only how to start a business, but also how to maintain it.

As the development comes to fruition, Communities Unlimited will continue to work with the town officials, residents and entrepreneurs of Sardis to meet the community’s needs.


Bogata Enlist Aid From CU on Many Issues

BOGATA, TX – Often, the work Communities Unlimited performs in one community leads to assistance for another, nearby community.

Such is the case of the community of Bogata, Texas (pronounced “bah-GO-dah,” for those not in the know).

It was CU’s work with the quilt trail project in nearby Clarksville, Texas, that drew the interest of a Bogata resident who had some big ideas for the smaller community.

Bogata lies southwest of Clarksville and has a population of about 1,500. For years, the town thrived in a self-sustained community setting. That is, until about a decade ago, when the local nursing home closed.

The nursing home was a major economic stimulator for the community, providing not only jobs, but also residents in need of local goods and services.

Not long after the nursing home shut its doors, other businesses began to close. While every closure had an impact, one of the largest impacts came from the closure of the town’s lone grocery store. Now, residents must venture about 15 miles out of town to find the nearest grocery store. It was not only an inconvenience for residents, it was a major loss of tax revenue.

One of Bogata’s residents, Lee Williams, saw some of the assistance provided by Communities Unlimited in Clarksville and approached them with ideas for Bogata.

Bogata was a perfect candidate to take part in Community Unlimited’s Community Sustainability Initiative. The initiative uses the BUILD method: Begin the project, Understand the community, Initiate planning, Lead implementation and Develop sustainability. The goal is to guide a community into remaking itself from persistent poverty to sustainable prosperity.

The work in Bogata began with ideas for a solid waste project. Specifically, community leaders wanted to start a recycling program to help reduce their waste stream. They also wanted to find a way to acquire a “one-armed bandit” trash collection vehicle.

While waiting for word on the grant, community leaders found another task for CU — bringing businesses back to downtown.

Communities Unlimited was able to provide a small business loan to the Honey Hush Boutique, which went into a previously vacant building in the heart of Bogata’s downtown. Today, the homegrown business is thriving.

But the community leaders of Bogata didn’t want to stop there. They also wanted a grocery store returned to their town.

A management consultant from Communities Unlimited began working with community led steering committee to discuss opening a cooperative grocery store. The process began with a feasibility study conducted by Communities Unlimited and presented to the Bogata steering committee.

The steering committee was able to review the feasibility study and determine that they should move forward with the project, starting with preparing a strategy for raising the capital needed.

The grocery store and small business loans are just two of the ways Bogata is working to stimulate its local economy with assistance from Communities Unlimited. After seeing the possibilities for the town’s future, they decided to apply for a grant that would take their sustainability plans even further.

Thanks to a Rural Community Development Initiative Grant through USDA-RD, Bogata will receive three years of technical assistance training through Communities Unlimited to used on economic development, GIS mapping and assistance to local businesses.

Communities Unlimited is currently working with Bogata officials to bring a grocery store or a farmer’s market to the town. The project is a perfect fit for CU’s Healthy Foods program, which links farmers and agricultural centers with communities in need of a source of fresh food.

Bogata is a perfect example of how the facilitation of one project can grow into a multi-faceted approach to improving a community through economic, environmental and sustainability approaches. Though the projects may seem separate on the surface, they actually share an overall goal of improving the sustainability of the community.


Brazilian Baker's Dream Becomes Doce Vida

ALEXANDRIA, LA — Several years ago, Neila Craig went to her husband Sean and told him that she wanted to stay home with the new child they were about to have. That meant their dual-income household would become a single one.

“It caused anxiety, for sure,” Sean said.

“He said, ‘there’s no way,’ so I said, ‘well, I’ll make a way,’” Neila said.

CU’s Deborah Temple (left) and Kevin Tillman (right) stand with Doce Vida owners Neila and Sean Craig.

She did just that, turning a hobby and sideline into a full-time, in-home business. In time, the business outgrew the home, and the couple decided to take another massive step and help Neila fulfill a longtime dream.

Together, they opened the Doce (pronounced “Doe-see”) Vida Brazilian Bakery in Alexandria, Louisiana.

The journey to the Louisiana shop started in Brazil, wove through family history and recruited assistance from the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance (CLEDA) and Communities Unlimited.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Neila Craig was born in Juiz de Fora, Brazil, a city in southeastern Brazil located north of Rio de Janero. She came to the United States with family and became a permanent resident.

It was through Neila’s family that she acquired her love of baking. At age 14, she baked a cake for her mother’s birthday with help from another family member. She enjoyed it so much, she began to learn more about baking.

She eventually met and married Sean Craig. Neila would bake cakes for her children’s birthday parties, and friends began asking if she would bake for them.

She began taking orders, and  eventually, she decided to improve her craft by taking cake decorating course being offered at the local craft store. She also took a course at the Culinary Institute of Baton Rouge.

Sean worked overtime with his job at the local Veterans Administration, and Neila turned her sideline baking into a full-time job.

She began expanding from baking cakes for family and friends by creating desserts and treats and taking them to Sean’s workplace at the VA two or three times a week to sell.

On the way home one day, she spotted the Alexandria Farmers Market and decided to stop and inquire about selling there.

“The guy there was very receptive, and he said, ‘Oh, we need somebody with baked goods! Can you start next Tuesday?’ And I said, ‘absolutely,’” Neila said.

She started at the farmers market in 2015 with a single folding table, a single chair and 20 items. She sold out that day, and came back every Tuesday for three hours each day to sell more at the market. By the time she ended her work at the farmers market in September 2019, she had 378 items on her table.

“I couldn’t keep up with the demand,” she said. “That’s how Doce Vida came about.”

FROM HOME TO STORE

By 2018, Neila knew she needed help maintaining the growth of her business, so she turned to CLEDA for business advice.

After working to better organize her business, Neila decided her main goal was to open an actual bakery, but she had no idea how to go about creating the shop.

Gary Perkins of CLEDA recommended that Neila and Sean work with Communities Unlimited to get a business plan and a loan to start their own bakery.

“All the sudden, we had to learn how to write a business plan, projections, and very scary things,” Sean added.

But Communities Unlimited and CLEDA worked with the Craigs on their “scary things,” assisting in developing the bakery from concept to a physical store.

The couple found a location in a retail center located along one of Alexandria’s main thoroughfares. With a loan from Communities Unlimited, Neila and Sean purchased what they would need to start the bakery: the ovens, the cold cases and other equipment, dishes, ingredients, furniture, décor and even a new website.

In March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country, and many businesses had to close. Doce Vida was able to keep its business going with a few cutbacks. Soon, it got busier and ended up hiring more employees. The business even was nominated in the 2020 CENLA’s Choice best-of competition for Best New Business, Best Bakery and Best Dessert.

Neila and Sean say they couldn’t not have opened the shop without the help of CLEDA and Communities Unlimited.

“Us trying to do this alone would be like running through a mine field in the dark, with barbed wire up for good measure, because there’s so many things you just do not know, and experience is a very expensive teacher,” Sean said.

Neila said they were skeptical at first that business management services such as those offered by CLEDA and Communities Unlimited could be cost-free and still be real. Once they got involved, however, they found working with both entities “amazing.”

Both said they were especially grateful for the business guidance offered by CLEDA and Communities Unlimited.

“It has been a learning experience, and we still learn every day,” Sean said. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”


Healthy Communities, Healthy Businesses, Healthy Families

Communities Unlimited, Inc., resides in the space of solutions. We take a community-based — yet regional — approach to solving the challenges that threaten our communities’ survival and provide the resources needed to sustain healthy communities, healthy businesses and healthy families.

Healthy Communities: Defining healthy communities from the outside is a significant endeavor. However, the people who call a rural community or a low-wealth neighborhood home know exactly when their community is healthy and when it is not. Creating the vehicle that allows residents to become leaders to define, plan and implement strategies to make their communities healthy was the work of our Community Sustainability efforts in 11 communities in 2019. Residents who serve on the board of their local water or wastewater system understand the importance of keeping their water and sewer system in regulatory compliance to ensure the community’s health. Building the capacity of water operators and the boards across 528 distinct communities was the work of our Environmental Team in 2019. Often, communities require capital to upgrade or maintain key water and sewer infrastructure. Communities Unlimited’s Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) played a key role by making 24 emergency and interim loans totaling $2.8 million. A strong local economy is an important driver for healthy communities.

Healthy Businesses: 131 healthy, locally owned businesses we worked with in 2019 come in here. Rural communities in the South are marked by a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Yet for decades, state and local leaders have been waiting on jobs to arrive from outside corporations. All the while, they overlooked the base of small businesses in their own communities that are contributing quality of life services, jobs and sales taxes. By helping local leadership teams build entrepreneurial ecosystems, we are shifting this mindset. By providing intensive managerial assistance through our Entrepreneurship Team, budding entrepreneurs are turning their dreams and sidelines into small businesses that benefit their communities. CU’s CDFI utilizes its unique lending model to de-risk loans on the front end of the lending process, allowing CU to make successful start-up and working capital loan to low-wealth entrepreneurs who often have low or no credit score and little or no collateral.

Healthy Families: Small business owners generate wealth for their families and income and security for their employee’s families. CU seeks to impact multiple social determinants of health that lead to healthy families. In 2019, CU ensured that 308,000 families had safe drinking water. In the Mid-South Delta Region, CU worked with community leaders to create access to fresh, healthy produce through three new rural farmers’ markets in McCrory, AR, Sardis, MS, and Senatobia, MS, which are also creating additional income for local small-scale farmers. In Bogata, TX, CU worked with a local cooperative to develop a feasibility study for a grocery store that can provide fresh produce and healthy foods.

STRATEGIC BLENDING

Communities Unlimited’s five main program areas – Environmental, Community Sustainability, Entrepreneurship, Healthy Foods and Lending – don’t work in isolation. They are strategically blended to solve challenges facing low-wealth neighborhoods and rural communities in the South holistically. This holistic approach led CU to be counted among organizations identified as Rural Development Hubs in the Aspen Institute’s 2019 report Rural Development Hubs: Strengthening America’s Rural Innovation Infrastructure.

RURAL DEVELOPMENT HUBS

Rural Development Hubs are further characterized by their ability to build and participate in collaboratives that deliver a broader array of services. Communities Unlimited has always worked under that assumption that rural challenges are too complex for any organization to solve alone. Take the sad phenomenon of persistent poverty in America, defined as counties where over 20% of the population have lived in poverty for over 30 years. Eighty percent of the 395 persistent poverty counties in America are rural, and 45% of all persistent poverty counties are located in CU’s seven-state footprint in the South. Persistent poverty is not an accident but the result of decades of divestment by corporations, bank closures, departure of national philanthropic funders and federal programs that never reach the communities due to matching fund requirements and challenging grant applications. CU cannot undo decades of divestment alone. It is part of the Partners for Rural Transformation, six Community Development Financial Institutions that together are working to eliminate persistent poverty and bring investment dollars into these communities while building local capacity to create affordable housing, launch small businesses, build and maintain water and sewer infrastructure, provide needed banking services and help local Native American leaders start their own CDFIs.

PARTNERSHIPS AND COLLABORATIONS

Partnerships and collaborations also drive CU’s work locally. When the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance struggled to get capital for the entrepreneurs graduating from its business accelerator and small farmers programs, it reached out to Communities Unlimited. We have made three loans to their graduates. CU co-leads the Memphis CDFI Network, which became a JP Morgan Pro-Neighborhood partner in 2019. The JP Morgan Chase investment drives a joint strategy that enables each CDFI to leverage its capacity building and capital strengths to layer affordable housing, mortgage lending and small business development to change the trajectory of two low-wealth, minority neighborhoods in Memphis.


New Tech Aids Cherry Tree Rural Water District

New Tech Aids Cherry Tree Rural Water District

Cherry Tree Rural Water District (RWD) expects a 40% reduction in revenues because of COVID-19. The system serves 268 households, 3 schools and 1 commercial customer. The revenue loss will be, in large part, to the early closing of schools in mid-March and the loss of jobs in an already persistent poverty county. Cherry Tree closed its office to the public after assistance from Communities Unlimited in purchasing and installing a payment dropbox. The system is working with limited staff, one full-time office clerk, and one full-time water operator. Office Clerk Brooke Davis had to bring her two children to work with her because of closed schools and limited childcare options. She is new to the water system, and like everyone else is working under continually changing circumstances. Brooke said, “I call [CU] for everything.” She has regular video conferences with Communities Unlimited staff to determine the best course of action in these unprecedented emergency circumstances.

Communities Unlimited is now working with most communities through video conferencing, introducing many to the new technology. We continue to utilize various technologies to assist rural communities in any way we can.


Farmers, With CU’s Assistance, Find New Clients

Farmers, With CU’s Assistance, Find New Clients

MID-SOUTH DELTA — The biggest impact seen in the COVID-19 crisis has been to businesses and their employees, with 33 million left unemployed within 3 months and more than 45 million by June 2020. Many small business owners question whether their businesses will survive.

Small-scale farmers are among those struggling to stay in business. While they follow the same business model — provide a product, sell it, make a profit, repeat — to stay open, they are unique in that they provide an essential element of life — food.

Small-scale farmers sell to local schools, restaurants and farmers markets. But with all three closed in the wake of COVID-19, farmers who have already planted and are beginning to harvest are left with too much product and not enough customers. In addition, they face concern over whether they can afford to plant in the future.

Some farmers have been donating excess crops to food banks to keep them from rotting in their fields, but it doesn’t help them financially. Communities Unlimited has been working to find alternative purchasers for their products, including summer school programs that will continue to feed children, farmers markets experimenting with online ordering and grocery stores trying to keep shelves stocked. A grant from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation allows CU to purchase the excess harvest from farmers and donate to a system of 23 food pantries in the Mississippi Delta.

Communities Unlimited will continue to work to guide farmers through this crisis.


Communities Unlimited Responds to COVID-19 Crisis - Side-by-Side with Small Businesses

Side-by-Side with Small Businesses

The news has focused on the current impact of COVID-19, including closed schools and businesses. But areas working on community sustainability with Communities Unlimited are already looking to the future.

Community Sustainability Teams in each community meet weekly via video conferencing to keep their plans moving forward.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act at the end of March 2020.

Bogata, TX, has two businesses that have received assistance from one of the programs created by the CARES Act called the Paycheck Protection Program or PPP. The PPP is a forgivable loan, of which 60% must be used for payroll and payroll expenses.

Shelly Evans owner of Honey Hush Boutique

Honey Hush Boutique, owned by Shelly Evans, a Communities Unlimited small business client, now offers online shopping and added curbside delivery. Bogata Healthcare Clinic is owned by Mary Palmer, who is a member of the Community Sustainability Team.

The PPP loan was one of many options made available to small businesses in the CARES Act.  Other options were created in the Families First Act. The biggest challenge was deciphering all of the information in both.

Communities Unlimited quickly dove deep into the CARES and Families First Acts to understand the requirements, programs available to small businesses, qualifications and how they would affect businesses. This information is available through a series of FAQs and the interactive Small Business Toolkit on our website, and all are updated as new information is released.

Communities Unlimited has provided 50 small business owners with individual applications assistance for the Payment Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL). The EIDL is more for operating expenses but can be used for payroll, similar to the PPP. Hope Credit Union and RCAC, both partners for Rural Transformation, agreed to make PPP loans to CU clients. By May 25, 2020, twenty-four CU clients had received $446,830 in PPP and saved 135 jobs.


The Community Voice - Communities Unlimited 2019 Annual Report

The Community Voice - Communities Unlimited 2019 Annual Report

We are thrilled to be able to share our 2019 annual report! We have had an exciting year. We now have a total of 65 employees across our seven states and are continuing to grow every day. Not only have we grown in size but in our ability to strategically blend our services. The Communities Unlimited staff are creating a more significant impact than ever before by identifying and connecting communities and entrepreneurs to all the resources that Communities Unlimited can provide community sustainability, lending, environmental services, entrepreneurship and healthy foods.

We are partnering and collaborating as an organization with an ever-increasing number of nonprofits, foundations, private sector partners and philanthropic organizations, as well as being part of the formation of new collaborations. With the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we are partnering with the Urban Institute and the University of Kentucky to study the impact of infrastructure on health and are one of the Partners for Rural Transformation.

We are proud to have been featured in Empower by GoDaddy Docu-Series “Made In America,” which showed not only our work but the incredible drive and passion of the small business owners that we support every day. We have been recognized for our holistic approach to working with rural communities by the Aspen Institute. There are so many stories to tell and not enough paper to print them all. We’ve selected a few from throughout 2019 to illustrate that with a little support, anyone anywhere can live in a healthy community, work or own a healthy business and have a healthy family.

Read the annual report in its entirety in our About Us section and request a paper copy by emailing Reception@CommunitiesU.org.