AKRON, Ohio – Professional sports stars often use their notoriety to influence public opinion and advocate change, including in real estate development. A standout player is LeBron James, the Los Angeles Lakers forward and four-time National Basketball Association champion.
At Akron, James is building a model for promoting education and welfare in the West Market Street neighborhood where he grew up. A new school, three residential buildings, and a sports and entertainment complex mean investments by the LeBron James Family Foundation and its partners totaling more than $ 20 million.
In public interest construction projects, James has joined a growing movement of developers across the country adding new ingredients to the socially responsible development formula. The term was originally defined by advances in design such as energy efficiency, environmental safety and affordability. Developers are now building buildings and neighborhoods that make these and other assets – health care, recreation, good schools, safe roads – accessible to residents of neglected communities.
Examples are numerous. Among them is the East Harlem Center for Living and Learning, a mixed-use project on 104th Street in Manhattan. Completed in 2015, the $ 84 million building includes 89 affordable housing units, office space and the Dream Charter School for 500 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. The project also includes a renovated public park.
"LeBron James is part of a movement to revitalize the community," said Jonathan F.P. Rose, President of the Jonathan Rose Companies in New York, who developed the center. "He'll find that the more he does, the more these pieces connect and make a difference."
Other sports stars invest in struggling communities. Magic Johnson Enterprises, the former N.B.A. Star's company has invested in movie theaters, Starbucks franchises, and restaurants in underserved neighborhoods in the country. In 2015, Magic Johnson Enterprises partnered with Loop Capital to form JLC Infrastructure to invest in urban transportation, utilities, communications and energy.
Mo Vaughn, who spent part of his baseball career with the New York Mets, is the co-founder of Omni New York, which specializes in buying and renovating residential buildings for affordable housing in difficult neighborhoods in and out of the city.
Sports stars can use their personal notoriety to drive projects forward. When he was Mayor of Sacramento from 2008 to 2016, Kevin Johnson, a former N.B.A. All-Star led the campaign to keep the Sacramento Kings in the California capital. He worked closely with Vivek Ranadive, the team's majority owner, to build a $ 500 million arena, which is the centerpiece of the $ 1 billion Downtown Commons, mixed-use that includes empty city blocks an active entertainment center.
According to real estate authorities, James' development model differs from these endeavors as it depends on his stature to recruit public and private capital to achieve a range of social goals and then develop projects to pursue them. The value proposition is to develop projects that will help contain family disruptions and provide learning, living, and work skills so that under-performing children can graduate from high school, attend college, and have successful careers. However, the individual pieces belong to different agencies and are managed by them.
"It's a promising model for community rehabilitation on a holistic basis," said Jeff Levine, professor of economic development and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It offers high quality development in places where there are no resources that people can do themselves."
The source of the idea, James says, is the insecurity and disruption he experienced early in his life when he missed 83 school days in fourth grade. These and other challenges he faced as a disadvantaged child inform and guide the foundation's development decisions.
"When we started this educational work with my foundation, we never thought we'd own buildings and develop new real estate," James said in an email. “As we got deeper into the work, we learned what it takes to make real, visible change. And that listens to what our church needs, then rolls up their sleeves and gets to work. "
The foundation's most recent and largest project is the $ 2.875 million it paid in December to purchase Tangier, an entertainment and events center in Akron. Renovation of the 60,000-square-foot building, renamed House 330, began in January and is expected to be completed next year.
The project provides training and jobs for students interested in careers in the hospitality, hospitality, management, maintenance, finance and other professions. It is also the first company to develop a source of income for the foundation's work, said Michele Campbell, executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation.
House 330 attracts prominent partners. JPMorgan Chase opens an office there to provide financial advice and resources to families. The J.M. Smucker Company and Old El Paso, a Tex-Mex food brand owned by General Mills, each donated $ 1 million to restaurants. The Dick & # 39; s Sporting Goods Foundation has allocated an additional $ 1 million to build a sports complex on the top level of the 500-digit parking deck adjacent to the project.
Mr. James' development career began five years ago when he recruited support from Akron Public Schools to start the I Promise School for underperforming elementary and middle school students. His foundation spent more than $ 2 million renovating a former McDonald & # 39; s office building for the school. It opened in 2018, serves third to eighth grades, and will reach its capacity of 720 students in 2023.
The school inspired Cheryl L. Stephens, executive director of East Akron Neighborhood Development Corporation, to look into the city and foundation to build I Promise Housing, an affordable 50-unit housing project valued at $ 14.5 million, which will start construction in spring 1.75 hectares donated by the city.
"He talks about inspiring people to do more," said Ms. Stephens. “I thought we should do more. We should create affordable housing. "
I Promise Housing is located near I Promise Village, a 22-unit apartment building that offers free temporary housing to families in times of crisis. It opened in July and has space for social services and community events. Graduate Hotels, a Nashville-based developer, spent $ 850,000 in 2019 to buy the 98-year-old four-story brick building. Ben Weprin, the company's general manager, then worked with his staff to recruit suppliers and contractors who would donate materials and manpower to complete a full renovation and furnish the apartments.
Graduate Hotels' parent company, AJ Capital Partners, donated the finished project to the foundation. Upon opening, the foundation, with nearly $ 5 million in assets, spent $ 52,500 to buy a home across the street. It is being renovated for Shannon Shippe, the Foundation employee who manages the housing and services program.
"The impact LeBron is having on Akron – it's amazing," said Weprin. "He does this while winning championships."
Realizing that his approach could be of use in other cities, James and the Foundation met in Akron in October to describe the I-Promise model to attendees. About 200 educators, philanthropists, activists, city guides and development professionals attended.
"This work takes long-term investment, a lot of heart and a lot of hard work," said James. "There are people across the country who are ready and want to be a part of it in their own community."