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Howard Levine gives $1 million for child development center

Laura Clark, CEO, of Renaissance West Community Initiative is leading the campaign to build child center at the development. The effort is getting $1 million from Howard Levine toward $15 million goal. The campaign has raised nearly $10 million. Apartments and town homes are currently under construction.
Laura Clark, CEO, of Renaissance West Community Initiative is leading the campaign to build child center at the development. The effort is getting $1 million from Howard Levine toward $15 million goal. The campaign has raised nearly $10 million. Apartments and town homes are currently under construction. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Family Dollar CEO Howard Levine has become the latest community leader to champion a rebirth on Charlotte’s low-income west side, giving $1 million to help build a child development center on land that was once home to the notorious Boulevard Homes housing project.

The $15 million center – to be named the Howard Levine Child Development Center – is considered the lynchpin of a $90 million revitalization plan for the 41-acre site, which once had a crime rate five times the city average.

Boulevard Homes is gone now, its 900 units bulldozed, and the land at West Boulevard and Billy Graham Parkway will soon be replaced by a mixed-income housing community called The Renaissance.

When completed, The Renaissance will have 334 housing units, a community center, a prekindergarten through 8th grade school and the Howard Levine Child Development Center. The center will be managed by the YMCA of Greater Charlotte and will serve 152 children from age 0 to 5.

The Renaissance West Community Initiative headed by CEO Laura Clark is leading the revitalization. It was Clark who approached Levine about the project, which she says has taken on increased significance after a 2014 survey of 50 cities showed Charlotte is not doing enough to help people rise out of poverty.

Says Levine: “After hearing about the initiative and what it means to Charlotte’s ability to help improve social mobility, it was an easy decision to participate.”

Levine’s $1 million puts the Renaissance West Community Initiative within $5.3 million of its $15 million campaign goal. The campaign is being chaired by former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl. Money raised so far includes grants from the Charlotte Housing Authority, the C.D. Spangler Foundation, Jerry and Rosalind Richardson and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Foundation.

Of the $15 million, $4 million is for construction, $5 million is for operations and $6 million will go toward programs for both children and adults, including financial literacy, workforce development and home visitation.

Adding the Levine name to the center is considered a way to raise the project’s visibility. Levine – the son of Family Dollar stores founder Leon Levine – is one of the state’s biggest philanthropists, with more than $65 million in assets in his Howard R. Levine Foundation at Foundation for the Carolinas. It’s his foundation that gave the $1 million.

“Howard Levine saw this as a way to help break the cycle of poverty,” said Clark. “We’re hoping that will send a message: An astute businessman in our community recognizes and acknowledges that early childhood education is the key to success and a level playing field. I think others will take notice of that.”

Work began on Renaissance West in 2010, and the site is currently home to 110 seniors and 74 families. The last phase of 150 mixed-income apartments and townhomes will be completed next year. There are 3,000 names on the waiting list to get homes in the community, officials said.

Construction should begin in coming weeks on the new pre-K through 8 school, with a planned 2017 opening, officials said. The 750-student school will be built using $30 million in voter-approved CMS bond money. As for the child development center, Clark hopes the campaign will reach its goal in the next 12 months, so work can begin in December 2016. She’d like to see the center open in the summer of 2017.

The agreement to have the YMCA manage the center represents a new concept for the state, though YMCAs in 17 other states have started similar programs. YMCA officials said they agreed to take on the task after extensive research of a similar project in Atlanta that serves 3,000 children.

“We know that this is one of the most challenged communities in Charlotte for social mobility and wanted to dig in on the west side,” said Michael DeVaul, senior vice president and chief community impact officer for the YMCA. “We’re clear this will become part of our strategic plan for the organization and we will be planning for this model to be replicated in other parts of the city. It’s a really big deal, and we want to do it right.”

Clark says the overall Renaissance project is benefiting from concern in the community about that 2014 study, which ranked the country’s 50 largest metro areas for upward mobility. Researchers ranked Charlotte 50th, using 2012 data that measured how likely it is for children whose parents are in the bottom 20 percent of the national income distribution to reach the top 20 percent of the income distribution themselves.

Boulevard Homes was once a prime example of the problem, with a median household income of $14,034 and only 25 percent of the children in the area scoring at or above grade level on statewide tests.

The Renaissance West Community Initiative intends to go at the problem with a “cradle to career” approach that has programs for children and their parents.

“Only focusing on housing or on education isn’t sufficient,” she says. “The goals we have set are audacious, and it’s a complicated thing we are trying to do. That’s why its important to have champions like Howard Levine and Hugh McColl helping us.”

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