How can a local congregation directly support its neighbourhood economic growth for the common good? This Social Cities profile examines the lessons learned when the congregation of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York undertook to establish the Westminster Economic Development Initiative to improve the quality of life for their neighbours and extended communities.
Dr. Cameron Airhart (Dean [retired] Houghton College Buffalo Campus)
Rev. Dr. Tom Yorty (Westminster Presbyterian Church)
Ben Bissell (WEDI) Bryana DiFonzo (WEDI)
Yanush Sanmugaraja (WEDI)
Andrew Gaerte (Buffalo Community Foundation)
Charles Massey (retired—Houghton College)
Rev. Richard Stenhouse and Ken Peterson (Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church)
Cindi McEachon (Peace Prints)
How can a local congregation directly support its neighbourhood’s economic growth and other forms of resource development for the common good? Are economic forms of development possible at those kinds of neighbourhood scales through faith-based groups like congregations?
In what follows, we will examine certain aspects of how Westminster Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York, undertook to establish the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, which is geared toward improving quality of life for local communities. Our examination is partial but seeks insight about successes and difficulties that the initiating organization and the new business-development organization may face. Our hope is that others who read this story will be able to see more clearly how they might contextualize these insights to support their own community-development plans. Although this case involves a local congregation, other types of organizations and enterprises may find ways to take advantage of these insights to support local thriving. The story of Harmac Medical Products in east Buffalo suggests one way that long-term development work at a neighbourhood level has been carried out in Buffalo.
Reports such as this are linear in nature, while what we describe is not. The dynamics of neighbourhood improvement are complex, resisting linear descriptions or solutions. We have attempted to avoid simplifying these dynamics and processes. Our success in doing so can only be limited. Attention to the dynamics and implications may be of use to other people seeking to foster projects that support their own common-good needs.
It is critical that these caveats be clearly and openly seen and understood. The reader may, in so doing, gain insight without oversimplifying a very complex process.
Home Institution: Westminster Presbyterian Church
Founded in 1854, Westminster Presbyterian Church began as a small congregation on Buffalo’s north side. Four years later, a building project commenced and was completed in 1859.
In the first one hundred years of operation, the church underwent a few periods of growth and was involved in many different community groups. In the 1960s, it began a period of self-reflection on its place in the world, building connections with church leaders around the world.
From the 1970s until recently, the church increased its community engagement through large children’s-ministry programs, micro-loans for business start-ups, and partnerships with Habitat for Humanity. It also offered its church facilities for use by many different non-profits and community groups in Buffalo. In 2006, Westminster founded the Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI), which took over the community and economic-development programs that the church had been running.
Westminster Presbyterian is located in a predominantly white, well-off neighbourhood, and the demographics of the congregation reflect that context. The church is located near the border of a noticeable socioeconomic divide in Buffalo between the east and west sides of Main Street. Residents on the west side tend to be white and wealthy, or at least middle class, while those on the east side are ethnically more diverse and lower in income. WEDI and the West Side Bazaar, which will be described below, are located on the west side of the city, where Latino and new immigrant communities are more concentrated (figure 1).
Figure 1. Plot of racial composition of Buffalo, New York. Source: http://demographics.virginia.edu/DotMap/index.html Red star is Westminster Presbyterian Church and the black star is the WEDI office location.
When faith-based organizations create community-outreach programs for “the less fortunate,” there can be a tendency to unintentionally reflect paternalistic attitudes that limit the longterm effectiveness of the program and can even harm the community and individuals that the organization initially sought to help (Corbett 2014; Lupton 2012). With a location near the racial and economic divide in Buffalo, Westminster’s decision to enter into longer-term economic and community-development programs represented a significant risk, putting to the test its stated mission:
“Westminster welcomes all people to participate in our worship of God, join our program life, support our mission and call upon our pastoral services. Our church is open and voluntary; inclusive of people of all ages and backgrounds making us a truly diverse and interesting family.”
The east-west division has deep historical roots. Reinforcement of that division has taken the form of explicitly racist zoning laws in the early 1900s, legal redlining (refusing loans based on neighbourhood demographics) in the middle of the century, and racial segregation in public housing and waiting lists for housing in the 1980s. These divisions persist today in many forms, including realestate agents providing “suitable” options to their clients based on race (Weaver 2019).
A core theme in this case study concerns how an existing institution or local organization that has resources, stability, and intention translates these into direct neighbourhood benefit. The value of local congregations to their communities has been known for some time (Cnaan, Forrest, Carlsmith, and Karsh 2013; Cnaan, Sinha, and McGrew 2004; Cnaan and Handy 2000), but that positive impact is often difficult to see or is assumed to quietly percolate into the community. Westminster sought to go beyond this built-in effect and to formalize another organizational entity that could directly foster well-being in the local neighbourhood, taking on challenges such as education, poverty reduction, employment growth, and economic development.
Figure 2. Map of Buffalo with organizations noted in the report identified along with the main street divide (dotted line).
New Organization: Westminster Economic Development Initiative
Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI) was founded in 2006 by Westminster Presbyterian Church. In line with its history, the church began this initiative with the goal of generating economic growth for the community near the church. The wide socioeconomic gap between members of the church and community members in the lower west side represented a key challenge.
Initially, WEDI was entirely volunteer-run, was completely connected to the church, and was doing work in several different sectors. It took over an after-school program called ENERGY (Education, Nurture, Encouragement, Readiness, Growth for Youth) that Westminster had previously run. WEDI also continued the micro-loan and business-training program that the church had started. Third, WEDI worked with Habitat for Humanity in revitalizing a group of homes on Ferguson Avenue.
In 2007, the church decided to organize WEDI as an independent 501(c)3 charity. Around this time, WEDI also began exploring economic-development strategies, leading to the establishment of a small-vendor indoor marketplace called the West Side Bazaar. In 2013, WEDI underwent a series of changes. It hired a new executive director, Ben Bissell, and decided to discontinue its work in housing. By narrowing its scope to economic development, education, and community development, WEDI was able in 2015 to expand its reach to all neighbourhoods in Buffalo (figure 3).
Figure 3. Overview of WEDI program areas. Source: https://www.wedibuffalo.org/about
The educational projects that WEDI sponsors are ENERGY, FLY, LAUNCH, and Girls Club. Each of these projects focuses on supporting English Language Learning (ELL) students, children, and youth at different stages. ENERGY, the after-school program that Westminster Presbyterian Church founded, is for younger students (grades 1–6) and focuses on social and academic skills. The FLY program is specifically for refugee students in middle school, and runs year-round. It offers homework help and opportunities for extra learning, as well as a place for students to develop community ties and practice speaking English in a less daunting setting than their public school. LAUNCH is similar, but directed toward high-school-age ELL students and students with interrupted formal education. LAUNCH provides school support but also offers help in college and career preparedness and financial literacy training. Girls Club is a bit different, as it is not focused on formal education. Rather, each cohort of high-school girls (twenty per group) meets for four Saturday sessions covering the topics of “puberty and body changes, personal hygiene, self esteem, and bullying prevention” (wedibuffalo.org/girls_club).
West Side Bazaar
Westminster’s initial focus for WEDI’s economic-development program was a small micro-loan program and business incubator in the west end. In the founding years, a few leaders and financial backers at Westminster hoped to expand their reach, and connected with a stakeholders’ group in the area that coordinated projects. After getting the green light from the stakeholders’ group, WEDI began outreach in the west side, spreading the word about the incubator and looking for potential smallbusiness owners to partner with. Unfortunately, the initial door-knocking in the community did not lead to sufficient interest. Not discouraged, WEDI continued searching for partners and eventually found interest within Buffalo’s immigrant community. Due to this unexpected clustered response from new Americans, the idea of a general small-business incubator evolved into an “international marketplace,” named West Side Bazaar.
The Bazaar is scaled to suit immigrant communities accustomed to street-vendor booths and stalls. These small, new-business owners can access business-development help, rent a small space below market value to start a shop or restaurant, and do so in a setting where other small entrepreneurs and customers create a right-sized market. Small-business owners outside of the Bazaar and individuals considering starting a business can also access assistance and training from WEDI.
Use of the Bazaar has resulted primarily in food and retail vendors originating in the local immigrant community. The preexisting indoor retail space was divided into rentable spaces suitable for around fifteen micro-enterprises. Collaboration among vendors enables them to offer a large catering menu.
Initially, the assumption was that the Bazaar would serve primarily as a launching space for standalone enterprises, the first step in a larger business plan, but most business owners involved in the project have not shown interest in moving out of the incubator into their own storefront.
Other unexpected outcomes include Kitchen @ The Market, a shared cooking space that can be rented as needed. This represents a much lower entry point for a new chef or food business while meeting the requirements for a commercial kitchen. Located in Buffalo’s Broadway Market (an organization independent of WEDI, but similar to the Bazaar), it is accessible and very close to spaces that can be rented to sell the food made in the Kitchen. WEDI did not start this initiative but was selected to run it because of the structural similarities it has with West Side Bazaar.
Development of the social aspects of community are a key principle in all of WEDI’s work. WEDI’s website lists Kitchen @ The Market and West Side Bazaar under “community development” and “economic development” categories. This overlap between educational and community support characterizes the crossover present in other aspects of WEDI’s work such as the ENERGY, FLY, and LAUNCH programs.
This brief review of the West Side Bazaar story suggests several points of consideration for other community developers.
- Be willing to adjust, but keep sight of your main goal. WEDI initially had trouble finding potential business owners, but did not change the design of its economic-development plan, persisting until it found the right community.
- Adjustments will be ongoing. Over time it became apparent that many of the business owners preferred to stay in the Bazaar rather than move on to become stand-alone enterprises. Over the next several years, WEDI will need to decide whether it wishes to adjust the initial goals of the Bazaar, limiting how many people will be helped, or adjust the means by which those goals are reached. A good fit between size, customers, and services challenged the “launch-pad” assumptions of earlier thinking. What is the role of community development and maintenance alongside economic development? If business owners move out of the Bazaar, will their connectedness in their community suffer, offsetting the benefits of their economic growth? If this is the case, are there other models that could work better?
- Structural issues are always important. Any organization hoping to replicate the West Side Bazaar approach should keep several structural dynamics in mind:
- Funding: for the space that the incubator will be in and for providing micro loans to business owners.
- Connections: to city leaders and community members.
- A knowledgeable team: people who are able to commit lots of time, who work well together, and who have the right skill sets.
- Skills: in intercultural communication, business and financial management, understanding city regulation, and knowledge of business/food standards.
- Proper attitude: paternalism cannot accomplish what might be done with respect and a willingness to learn before jumping in with solutions.
- Guidelines: What requirements do new tenants and business partners need to meet? What will you promise to these tenants and partners? How will you know when a vendor or project isn’t working and requires intervention of some kind?
Replication of a congregationally initiated effort like the West Side Bazaar will encounter failures and difficulties. Economic development at neighbourhood scales is a deep learning process. One such learning point from West Side Bazaar relates to how business owners were initially sought.
Even though WEDI had connections to the west side, and particularly to immigrant communities, it did not consult these communities when designing the original outline for Westminster Bazaar. Why not? Perhaps business owners’ disinclination to leave the Bazaar could have been foreseen and addressed earlier if the plans had been designed after serious consultation with the community. New ventures like these may be best served by developing organizational strategies that are designed to be flexible and adaptable enough to explore and learn about new opportunities. If the planners had consulted the target community in advance, they may have developed a more effective strategy. This approach would have taken more time and faced challenges, but it would have better matched actual need.