When Upside Allentown was created four years ago it had a goal to make sure the economic development created by the Neighborhood Improvement Zone spread beyond the high-rise buildings being erected and out into the surrounding community.
And now, four years into the six-year campaign, organizers are reporting on their successes over the past year and goals for year five.
Funded by tax credit donations from BB&T Bank, TD Bank, PPL Corp., City Center Investment Corp., Alvin H. Butz Inc., Lafayette Ambassador Bank and Wells Fargo Bank, Upside Allentown provides $550,000 per year to improve residences, businesses and to expand educational and cultural offerings in the area.
The group’s leaders said much has already been accomplished with a new “Start Your Business” training program, signage improvements and property improvements. Upside Allentown has also brought cultural events, art and youth activities to the community and made a dent in crime with an added walking and biking police presence.
Still, there are still many goals ahead.
One of the main goals heading into year five is building rehabilitation, said Alan Jennings, executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley.
“Allentown has a lot of old housing stock. If it’s restored or refaced it can be beautiful,” he said. But, he warned that without action, those buildings could soon crumble, adding to the blight in the city. Money from the Year Five Upside Allentown budget will be spent targeting specific blocks of properties organizers have targeted in the City Center area in a number of different ways.
• $190,000 will be spent on owner occupied homes. Providing money for exterior and interior rehabilitation to targeted properties.
• $100,000 will be spent on commercial facades.
Money will also be budgeted for rental properties. Jennings said details haven’t been finalized, but would involve a deal where Upside Allentown would contribute funds to exterior improvements – the improvements that most affect the surrounding neighborhood --- if the landlord agrees to pay for certain interior improvements.
Other economic development initiatives include $30,000, which has been earmarked for small business development and employability programs.
There is also a combined $35,000 to be spent on creating, hosting and marketing events to bring people downtown to spend money.
Organizers gave Blues, Brews and Barbeque as an example of a successful downtown event. The June festival brought around 15,000 people to the City Center area this year.
Of course, Upside Allentown can only do so much with its $550,000 annual budget, so the organization uses those funds to leverage help from other areas including funds from the city, foundations and other corporate grants.
And the group has found success in gaining that support.
“All of us are very pleased to be part of such an effective, productive effort,” said Don Bernhard, former PPL executive and co-chair of the Upside Allentown steering committee.
Besides being on the committee, he is also one of those helping with funding.
Bernhard is also executive director of the Downtown Allentown Community Development Initiative, a consortium of 14 CEOs that provide funding towards projects that improve the conditions in the downtown, and is one of the organizations providing assistants to Upside Allentown.
In fact, Jennings suggested with help from groups like the DACDI, Upside Allentown will have in the neighborhood of $1 million to $1.5 million for the next year to meet its economic development goals.