What’s next for CFI? Oak School Project Huge Success

Not many organizations leave the starting gate with a whopping $5 million project. But that is exactly what Communities First, Inc. did with their Oak School Project. The project involved converting an old school building into apartments for low-income senior citizens. CFI is a mission-based 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that started in 2010 and has been growing ever since, according to Glenn Wilson, President. It was founded by Glenn and his wife Essence, who are both Flint natives. “We grew up here,” says Glenn “and we wanted to make a difference in Flint and help rebuild our city.” Glenn’s experience as an entrepreneur and Essence’s engineering background helped make CFI what it is today. “Our ability to work as a team has been an important part of the organization’s growth,” says Glenn. “Additionally, the CFI board of directors, volunteers and staff have been a tremendous support to the work that the organization is accomplishing.”

The mission of CFI is to promote and provide an improved quality of life for residents of distressed communities through economic development and affordable housing solutions. And their motto is Developing With The Community In Mind. Glenn says the organization started out with a passion for helping ​people, overwhelming community needs, perseverance and an ability to bring together the right resources to address longstanding community problems. “Essence and I decided that we wanted to be a part of the solution in Flint rather than the problem. Many people complain and that’s fine, but we took our frustrations and turned them into action.” The result of these actions has been great projects and programs that do not duplicate any other effort going on in the community. “It has required a lot of hard work and a great deal of sacrifice, but we would not have it any other way,” says Glenn. “We are doing everything we can as an organization to create equitable and sustainable programs and communities.”

The Oak School Project was very successful. Built in 1898, the building was used as a school until sometime in the 70s. The space was also used by Community Mental Health before becoming a Genesee County Land Bank property. CFI partnered with the Land Bank and acquired the building. Glenn says funding for the project was difficult to obtain and the application process required a great deal of time and resources to complete. They obtained funding from Michigan LISC, HUD and MSHDA. CFI also received support from the Ruth Mott Foundation, Community Foundation of Greater Flint, Southwest Airlines and other community partners that were important for the creation of Oak Street Senior Apartments.​ They also partnered with Hurley Medical Center, who helped to furnish the health services room, and they are providing ongoing support to the residents through workshops, special events and senior perks. “The Flint Public Library has stocked our library with books of various genres and the rotating collection offers residents fresh options on a regular basis,” Glenn explained. “ This is truly a collaborative effort of many community partners.”

Oak School was in terrible condition when it was first selected it for the project and it continued to deteriorate as they worked through pre-development. Throughout the construction process, they had several surprises, like the bird feces and dead birds in the cupola and walls (six feet deep) that could not be removed.  “Although the project had its ups and downs, the end product is fantastic and everyone who comes for a tour loves what we did with the building,” Glenn says. The gymnasium​ was demolished and an addition was built for people with mobility issues.  The building was built green according to Enterprise Green Communities standards and is decorated with artwork from the Mott-Warsh Collection. “This project incorporates all of our programs – affordable housing, economic development, arts and culture outreach and environmental education!” Glenn exclaimed.

The project made a significant impact on the Flint community. It brought $5.1 million of funding to the city and provided about 100 jobs for local individuals. “We have been recognized on a national level for our efforts by MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the Nonprofit Quarterly and Affordable Housing Finance magazine, “ boasts Glenn, adding that it is another example of something good happening in Flint. The project aligns with the Master Plan for a Sustainable Flint and demonstrates the successful adaptive reuse of a vacant building.  Glenn says the community and neighborhood have embraced the project and it has offered hope for other neighborhoods with large, vacant structures. “We’ve kept the community involved throughout the process, from planning to community walkthroughs to the 300 people who attended the grand opening celebration,” says Glenn. “We have had so many people talk about the project and how happy they are that it was completed by Flint natives. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and we’ve been encouraged to continue our efforts.” The community was also happy that the history of the building was preserved during the renovation. Former students appreciated that their school building was not demolished and current residents are happy to have a safe, beautiful, and affordable new home.

So, what’s next for CFI? Their next project is the renovation of the Swayze Building on Court Street, which will include a complete rehab of the structure, construction of a new apartment building and the addition of a parking lot. Swayze Court Apartments will provide 36 affordable units for people who are homeless or have special needs. “We are very excited about this project and happy that we will be able to offer safe, affordable, clean housing for some of our most vulnerable community members, says Glenn. “We strive to maintain the historic nature of the buildings; historic preservation is important to us.”

CFI is also expanding their other programs to further serve the community.  The Culture Shock program offers engaging, exciting and creative events throughout the year for families to take part in arts and culture activities. Green Life, an environmental education program, was created to educate Flint residents and businesses about environmental concerns that affect them and to empower them to make choices that will improve life for all residents. Topics for Green Life events include recycling, energy efficiency, pollution reduction, water conservation, and environmentally-friendly cleaning products.

“I see Communities First, Inc. as a liaison between community needs and resources,” says Glenn. “We will continue to focus our efforts toward building equitable, sustainable communities by staying true to our motto of developing with the community in mind. This means that as long as there is a need in the Flint/Genesee County community, there will always be a need for Communities First, Inc. We will continue to innovate, grow and create strong win-win partnerships, and most of all we will continue to invest in communities and impact the lives of those we serve.” ♦


Photography by Mike Naddeo & Provided by CFI


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