Our View: RCCDC has achievements to celebrate after 25 years

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The period just prior to 1990 was not a time marked by vast economic change for Elizabeth City. That may be why promising themes such as industrial recruitment, job-creation and downtown renovation were getting so much attention.

But while some were looking for options to create a more robust local economy, others were wondering how to uplift those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. It was in that atmosphere that several local individuals, realizing that people must be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities offered by economic development, looked for ways to help. What was needed, they surmised, were programs for poor and minority residents and youth who, without advocates, can be overlooked in the broader schemes of economic development.

Following that cause in Elizabeth City was Lenora Jarvis-Mackey. In the summer of 1989, she had joined other like-minded peers, including Shirley Turnage and Earline Sullivan, committed to the goal of helping minority and low-income youth. Their goal was to focus on youths who lacked the benefit of growing up with strong parental involvement, by providing surrogate methods to build self-esteem and help them become motivated and productive. Volunteering many hours a week, these women formed the Multiple Services Institute and began programs at the Debry Community Center. The program immediately took on a positive and productive course, attracting dozens of youth to its Saturday morning programs.

From that experience, other opportunities to extend human development services to the poor and minority population took shape. As it turned out, the time was right, especially for Jarvis-Mackey. She had few resources other than a devoted group of friends and supporters; but what she did have, and what has continued to get results for her, is the gift of a persistent personality to move others in the direction she is trying to go. And go she did, leading efforts in 1990 to found the River City Community Development Corporation.

The agency, created as a non-profit, directed by a board of loyal advocates and funded only by grants and donations, faced an enormous challenge. Securing opportunities, teaching life skills and giving hope to a large population of residents whose lives were steeped in a tradition of poverty wasn’t to be an immediate success. And it would be a journey not always supported by the public or public institutions. But its chief executive Jarvis-Mackey persisted. A quarter of a century later, RCCDC has become an iconic symbol, a critical resource to the hopes and dreams of many in this community, as a hand extended to pull them toward a better future.

The evolution of River City’s community development programs can be mapped by its human priorities. Initially that was helping to secure affordable housing through counseling or by navigating the dizzying maze of grant application paperwork. The payoff has been more residents with a secure domestic lifestyle, which is critical to family development and a stabilizing influence on neighborhoods. In subsequent years came development of Renaissance Commons and Renaissance Village in 2000, adding visibly to RCCDC’s success of making affordable housing available. Currently, River City is in the planning stages for multi-family housing off Martin Luther King Drive and McMorrine Street.

Then there is the focus on at-risk youth, including intervention and job-training, and the obligation to confront difficult youth-related issues many communities face. Often, the difference between a life misdirected by economic circumstances or just bad choices and one driven by ambition or hope is having a trusted advocate pointing consistently and adamantly in the right direction. River City, with its various youth services and its Youth Build program has provided that directional stimulus to hundreds of young people since 1999.

In more recent years, RCCDC has pursued growth of more minority-owned businesses and enterprises, ultimately ensuring that minorities benefit fully from economic development. That objective has a firmer niche now with the opening earlier this year of the Renaissance Business Incubator, an RCCDC project, on McMorrine Street. Twenty-five years after it as created, RCCDC has grown into institution for lifting lives and helping people. Its legacy, though still focused on poor and minority residents and youth, is as a community builder for all residents. The simple reality is that Elizabeth City’s prosperity must be shared if all of its residents are to feel invested in its future. And RCCDC has given more residents reason to believe they are invested.