Wayne Metro’s new ‘impact center’ helps fill gaps in Highland Park April 3, 2019

To begin to understand the City of Highland Park, Michigan, you must first understand its unique location within the City of Detroit – that’s right, within. Picture a donut: Detroit is the ring; Highland Park is the hole. Being at the geographic center of Detroit has some advantages – it’s optimally accessible to residents throughout the region – but a major disadvantage is that it often gets overlooked by nonprofits and philanthropists otherwise geared toward Detroit. The Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency is one nonprofit trying to change that.

“Highland Park is really a jewel that needs some TLC. That’s why we put a stake in the ground here in the early 90s – we own property here, we run programs here, and we really feel we are a part of the community,” says Wayne Metro CEO Louis Piszker. “It was a very, very easy decision to invest $2.5 million in our new impact center.”

The agency’s Cortland Community Impact Center is a 60,000-square-foot facility offering myriad services, including early childhood education; dental care; and assistance with rent, utilities, diapers, food, clothing, and other basic needs. The center has been operating in the community since 2007 and is now undergoing major renovations to be completed in 2020.

The phased construction project began with the buildout of Cortland’s Early Head Start Hub, which opened three classrooms serving 24 infants and toddlers in March 2018. Later in 2018, Cortland opened its Head Start Hub for 51 children ages 3-5.

A $1.45 million loan from IFF supported the buildout of the three Head Start classrooms. According to IFF research, the Highland Park area is within the top three highest-need areas for early childhood education in the tri-county area.

“IFF’s work with early childhood education providers throughout Detroit and the tri-county area has shown that there’s a high demand for quality facilities – if you build it, with children and families in mind, they will come,” says Monica Duncan, IFF’s Director of Early Childhood Services. “We are confident this center will soon reach capacity and be successful, and we hope that success attracts other early childhood providers to the area.”

In addition to the Head Start and Early Head Start classrooms, Wayne Metro plans to renovate the rest of the Cortland Center and also construct a larger “campus” of adjacent services. Three future phases of construction include:

  • 2019 – The NeighborHUB Weatherization Training Center will offer contractor certification as well as resident education regarding both energy and water conservation
  • 2020 – Major renovations at the Cortland Center will include a new commercial kitchen, a community conference center and co-working space, new building mechanical systems, building façade replacements, and reconfiguration of space to serve 60 community partners
  • 2021 – Roselawn Apartments, which will offer 44 modern, affordable family apartments inside a 77,000-square-foot historic building

Wayne Metro says these projects are part of its “whole family – whole neighborhood” strategy.

“We work from the inside-out, not the outside-in. You can’t serve children without serving families, and you can’t serve families without serving neighborhoods,” Piszker says. “We’re in the thick of this neighborhood, and we feel our role is to work with residents to provide services they actually need and want, as well as with a broader ecosystem of people and groups that are trying to move this city forward.”

We work from the inside-out, not the outside-in. You can’t serve children without serving families, and you can’t serve families without serving neighborhoods.”

Notably, the community center is located within a former elementary school – one of many that shuttered when the Highland Park School District essentially went bankrupt a few years ago. With many of the school buildings out of commission, the community has been lacking a large gathering space – a gap that Wayne Metro has been able to fill.

“Our gymnasium has been the de facto community gathering place,” Piszker explains. “We hold city-wide meetings, we hosted prom, we host sports banquets – any type of civic event.”

On any given day, upwards of 500 people go through the doors at the Cortland Center. Wayne Metro has broad-based support from both residents and local leaders – but raising funds to build out the Cortland Center and larger campus hasn’t been easy.

We never gave up on Highland Park, and Highland Park never gave us on us.”

“We never gave up on Highland Park, and Highland Park never gave us on us. But we’ve had to show perseverance – continually advocating, fighting, talking, and cobbling together resources to be successful,” Piszker says. “And I have to give IFF a lot of credit. We tried to do standard bank financing, and it just wasn’t going to happen because Highland Park has no comps [comparable real estate to establish value, the primary metric banks use to underwrite loans]. For IFF to trust us and have confidence in us and our plan and vision for this community impact center was an amazing thing.”

IFF has offered non-appraisal-based loans since its founding in 1988.

“Our ‘credit box’ is not limited by appraisals, which falsely attempt to assign value to the invaluable,” says IFF CEO Joe Neri. “We have constructed a different way to underwrite loans that just makes better sense for nonprofits serving lower-income areas, and our success over the last 30 years demonstrates that a different way can work.”

According to Piszker, IFF’s investment is critical because it gives Wayne Metro an asset to build on for the next phase of its campus project.

“Our services are impactful, and we think our physical presence needs to be impactful too,” Piszker says. “We want to make a statement that this community is worthy of investment, and that Wayne Metro is going to lead it.”