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With New Grants, United Way Shifts Focus To Neighborhoods

CEO Mack McDonald of the Renaissance West Community Initiative talks with a student at Renaissane West STEAM Academy, a public school built in partnership with the neighborhood.
David Boraks
CEO Mack McDonald of the Renaissance West Community Initiative talks with a student at Renaissance West STEAM Academy, a CMS public school built in partnership with the neighborhood.

Updated Friday, June 8, 2018
United Way of Central Carolinas announced $24.5 million in new grants Thursday, and the list has a different look from years past. The agency is shifting some funding to initiatives to improve economic opportunity and mobility.

Credit David Boraks / WFAE
Renaissance West sits on 41 acres off West Boulevard where the Boulevard Homes housing project once stood.

Its major focus will be on two neighborhoods – Renaissance West, off West Boulevard, and Grier Heights, off Randolph Road.

Meanwhile,  the United Way is also trimming staff to reduce its own budget and reliance on reserve funds for operations.  A spokesman said 13 positions have been eliminated - four vacant and nine existing jobs. That leaves the organization with 47 full time staff.


The 41-acre Renaissance West site was once a poverty- and crime-filled housing project called Boulevard Homes. It was torn down in 2011 to make way for the $100 million redevelopment.

“The neighborhood was built out in phases, so what you see here is Phase I, which also includes a senior residence that has 110 units," Mack McDonald, CEO of the Renaissance West Community Initiative, which oversees community services in the new neighborhood, said. "Then Phase 2, which was apartments, and Phase 3, which was townhomes. So the last phase was completed in the summer of 2016,” 

There's also the Howard Levine Child Development Center that opened in February and a CMS public school - the Renaissance West STEAM Academy - which is finishing its first school year this week.


The Renaissance West Initiative is getting $100,000 a year for the next three years as part of the United Way's new United Neighborhoods Initiative.

The other neighborhood is Grier Heights, off Randolph Road south of uptown Charlotte, where the Crossroads Corporation is also getting $100,000 a year.

Mack McDonald is CEO of the Renaissance West Community Initiative, which coordinates services in the neighborhood.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
Mack McDonald is CEO of the Renaissance West Community Initiative, which coordinates services in the neighborhood.

And there’s more to the initiative. Altogether, the United Way will spend $2.4 million over three years on health, financial literacy, education and community building in city neighborhoods.

United Way Executive director Sean Garrett said it's a direct response to a 2013 report that ranked Charlotte 50th out of 50 major cities for economic mobility.

“A child born in poverty in Charlotte today has very little chance of escaping that in their lifetime,” Garrett said. “And so our grants are really a reflection of a new strategy, a strategy focused on neighborhood development, focused on racial equity, and focused on the systems that serve children and families across our region.”


Renaissance West Community Initiative and the Crossroads Corporation in Grier Heights are what the United Way's Laura Clark calls community quarterbacks.

“They really serve as the organization that wakes up every day thinking about the community, and how to put the various pieces of community redevelopment together,” Clark said.

These two neighborhood quarterbacks and residents have worked with the United Way this spring to identify specific needs and organizations to provide those services.

The remaining $600,000 of this year's $800,000 in United Neighborhood funding will go to nearly two dozen other organizations. They include programs for tutoring and summer learning, community health, financial education and computer access.

Besides Grier Heights and Renaissance West, the United Way also providing smaller grants of up to $22,000 a year in six other neighborhoods to organizations it hopes will evolve into community quarterbacks. 

But there's a long way to go. Clark said at least 30 Charlotte neighborhoods need help from the United Way and other funders.

“It's long term work," Clark said. "It takes a concerted effort. It takes multiple groups putting their resources towards it. But we believe and have evidence to show that this is one of the best ways to tackle economic mobility."

Thursday's announcement also included $350,000 for the second year of the United Way's Unite Charlotte program. That started last year to support groups that help improve racial equity and social capital.

Most of the $24.5 million in grants goes to dozens of community organizations that provide social and community services, health care and education. 


The shift in priorities has a downside. Some longtime United Way Partners won't get as much this year, like the Red Cross, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Some won't get grants at all: Arthritis Services, Hospice and Palliative Care of Cabarrus County, Iredell Council on Aging, LIFESPAN, Love Inc., Metrolina Association for the Blind, Piedmont Mediation Center, The Arc of Mecklenburg County and Salvation Army of Statesville.

Clark said the United Way has discussed its planned change in direction – and possible funding cuts – with agencies over the past two years.

“While we recognize these are difficult decisions and all of our partners are doing great work in the community, we also understand that we can't change the outcome for children in our community if we aren't willing to do things differently,” Clark said.


Read the United Way announcement of this year’s grants and its change in funding strategy, uwcentralcarolinas.org/

Renaissance West Community Initiative, http://www.rwci.org/

Crossroads Corporation, Grier Heights, http://crossroadscorporation.org/

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.