Bridge Street Development Corporation’s Innovative Community and Business Initiatives in Downtown Brooklyn
By Fern Gillespie
When large institutions like the Bridge Street Development Corporation partner with community groups like the Tompkins Avenue Merchant Association (TAMA), the benefits to the community are immeasurable. The same goes for the business successes, big and small, that Our Time Press is currently tracking. Last Sunday, we caught up with Gregory Anderson, President and CEO of BSDC, at the TAMA Open Streets event for photos. In a recent interview, below, Mr. Anderson shared some of BSDC’s other success stories. Anderson, who joined BSDC in 2019, has over 25 years of investment banking experience in public finance.
OTP: Is the ability to offer below-market rates driving the success of the Tompkins Avenue Merchants Association (TAMA) Open Streets program? Is it possible to replicate the success of Tompkins Avenue without storefronts at below-market rates?
GEORGIA: The below-market rate is not directly applicable. Throughout the pandemic, many of our local merchants have experienced significant hardship and the potential threat of closure. Our needs assessment of the Bed-Stuy Six Business Corridor Business District showed that our local small business experienced a 70% drop in revenue due primarily to the loss of foot traffic caused by the pandemic. Bridge Street was fortunate to be among the few community development corporations of color to receive OPEN STREET approval for a commercial corridor to help increase foot traffic and commerce in Bedford Stuyvesant. The TAMA Open Streets program has brought business and community together and has enabled many businesses to survive and thrive amid the pandemic.
OTP: Why is TAMA a model for cities across the country?
GEORGIA: All of our work at Bridge Street is done through partnerships, and TAMA is a great example of the importance of partnerships and collaborations. The old adage that there is strength in numbers and that we accomplish together, what we cannot do alone, is the formula that contributes to our success. More than 30 civic and non-profit organizations, small businesses and large corporations recently joined forces for the successful one-day Destination Nostrand event in Northern Crown Heights.
OTP: What other merchant associations work with BSDC, such as Lewis Avenue? What is your strategy to bring it to the level of Tompkins Avenue?
GEORGIA: We are working to establish or revitalize merchant associations with Tompkins Avenue, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Nostrand Avenue (Crown Heights) and Lewis Avenue. We are just beginning work on a new Crown Heights Business District needs assessment. Our strategy is to capitalize on the unique characteristics and strengths of each trade corridor.
OTP: What impact has the MY BASE youth program had on young people in the community? Is there a difference in post-COVID involvement?
GEORGIA: MYBASE, the Motivated Youth Building All Self-Empowerment youth program, has been one of the few programs during the pandemic to provide teens and young adults with the opportunity to work and meet safely outdoors or in large open spaces under strict COVID protocol and giving back to the community. MYBASE started in 2013 and has worked with Bridge Street since 2015. It is a legacy program from the late Al Vann. He was the first backer as a member of the city council. These MYBASE young people became early advocates for the reinstatement of the summer youth employment program in 2020. It was remote then and increased in 2021. The impact on the development of Bridge Street is that our registration has increased significantly in 2022 for summer employment for young people from 350 in 2020 to 1,100 this summer. MYBASE youth have been visible in the community and a resource to many civic groups through their service and volunteerism. Interest in participating has grown every year, and we are extremely proud of the success of our MYBASE alumni, many of whom have returned as Bridge Street employees.
OTP: Why is it essential for residents to get involved in the BedStuy Works Alliance of Block and Tenant Associations?
GEORGIA: The Alliance is a means through which we help community residents advocate and implement strategies as we fight for affordable housing, relief for landlords and renters, and other important community issues. such as sanitation and public safety. The Alliance has been one of the most enduring and influential volunteer groups in leadership development, community building and narrative change in Bedford Stuyvesant. Being involved in the association of the blocks, we have a voice, and this is how we create change.
OTP: What are the main questions raised by homebuyers in your workshops and seminars?
GEORGIA: Bridge Street made the strategic decision in 2021 to no longer offer workshops and seminars for first-time home buyers and foreclosure prevention advice. This decision was made to provide more attention and energy to solving the main issue raised by residents of the community looking to become homebuyers: affordability.
We can no longer afford to live in our community. Bridge Street is addressing this issue and trying to develop strategies and programs that allow us to keep our community affordable. Gentrification plays a big role. As gentrification happens and prices go up, we can no longer afford to live here. We had a program to keep it in the family and how to preserve the financial inheritance in the family. The program I plan to create now for homeownership is to keep it in the community. Bed-Stuy had one of the highest homeownership rates among African Americans nationally. It has certainly deteriorated. How can we make sure we can buy homes in our community?
ANP: Tell us about your economic development initiatives, including the BSDC First Time Investors program — does it have an impact on the community? Why is it important to invest?
GEORGIA: Many statistics show that the wealth gap between black and white Americans has been persistent and extreme. The First Time Investors program that we have successfully operated with Signature Bank for over 19 years is one of the many economic development initiatives that Bridge Street uses to help close this gap. The First Time Investors program is a free 6-session course offered once a week that educates community members on the importance of managing their spending and credit and provides the opportunity to build wealth by participating in the financial markets with investing and retirement planning. Participants invest $500 of their funds and Signature Bank donates $1,000, so each participant begins the process of saving, investing, and growing their wealth with $1,500.
Since the program began, active participants have raised close to $500,000. An example of the importance of investing is the person who recently closed their investment account and used the proceeds to purchase their first home. Our other economic development initiatives include helping more than 600 majority women and minority-owned businesses secure grants and additional funding. We also offer small business grants, technical assistance, disaster relief, open streets, district needs assessment and economic development marketing campaigns.
OTP: What are some of the upcoming projects planned by BSDC?
GEORGIA: We are working to implement a restorative justice program to provide a positive pathway for our youth most directly affected by gun violence. We will also expand our internship and training programs for young adults. Our biggest area of growth continues to be in economic development programs and support activities for small businesses and start-ups. In real estate development, our goal is to help develop new programs and identify new sources of funding that help redefine what affordability means in our community for rental and homeownership and commercial and community spaces.