River City Community Development Corporation

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A little-known but important cog in the local wheel

From June of last year, this photo depicts part of the popular Juneteenth Celebration, scheduled this year for Saturday, June 20th.

From June of last year, this photo depicts part of the popular Juneteenth Celebration, scheduled this year for Saturday, June 20th.

Lenora Jarvis-Mackey leads River City Community Development Corporation.

Lenora Jarvis-Mackey leads River City Community Development Corporation.

Editor’s note: Most people in the Elizabeth City area are aware of the River City CDC, but know very little about what the agency does and how important it is in the effort to elevate minorities, raising their standard of living. With the Juneteenth Festival nearing, we thought that it was beneficial to do a feature article on the festival as well as the organization behind it.

ELIZABETH CITY — River City CDC did not just happen one day, it sprung up from grassroots with the input of local business leaders who had the vision for a nonprofit organization to serve the minority community in the immediate Elizabeth City area.

In 1990 there was development work along the waterfront area where a large part of the African-American community resided. These black business leaders went to Elizabeth City State University to find out how they could be a part of the new development. During the discussions that followed, they came up with the idea for a Community Development Corporation. The Legislative Black Caucus in the Legislature had some money and that was the beginning of the organization.


The modest offices of River City CDC is the hub of many different programs.

The modest offices of River City CDC is the hub of many different programs.

However, they did not have someone to run the organization so they approached Lenora Jarvis-Mackey to leave her employment at the university and lead this fledgling nonprofit organization into the future.

When Mrs. Mackey joined the organization, she had only a group of volunteers and they spent the time between 1990 and 1992 planning what they were going to do and how they were going to do it. In the meantime, the area had become blighted. There was a club down on Southern Avenue and a couple of people were killed there. The board wanted to clean up the community and Mrs. Mackey was tasked with that effort. She admits that she was naïve about what must occur for development to take place. She did not have a sense of where the funding was going to come. And, soon after, she learned that the nonprofit had to take ownership of the land for development to take place.

As Mrs. Mackey puts it, the reality became — what many people knew — that development cannot take place on land that belongs to someone else. Therefore, she started developing a strategy, which took several years to complete.

She never went to the bank for a loan but she and her associates raised some money. Later, came money for land acquisition, and then more to level blighted buildings. The entire community came together in this effort. They performed their due diligence and began to develop plans for affordable housing in the area. Housing stock was low and old, so they focused on development that was easily purchased.

After housing, they added youth development to their core operations. Within the context of their mission ttatement, River City CDC officials took a holistic approach, for the entire community: “The Mission of River City Community Development Corporation (RCCDC) is to strengthen communities and improve the quality of life for residents in Elizabeth City and Northeastern North Carolina. Founded in 1990, RCCDC is dedicated to providing strong leadership through the implementation of programs and initiatives that provide affordable housing, economic and workforce development, health and wellness, cultural awareness and youth empowerment.”

In 1999, they started Youth Build, with the help of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This program has become successful and provides at risk children with a second chance, which is actually a last chance. They bring children into the organization, not to “fix them” but to take them from where they are and work with them to become a better person. They work with them to succeed to the maximum extent of their individual potential.

As Mrs. Mackey said, We love our young people to life not to death.” The key is lots of love and lots of hugs.

Several young people that Mrs. Mackey has worked with over the years have come back to Elizabeth City after 20 years to see her. To her, this is the most rewarding “because you know that you made a difference in someone’s life.”

With every class, the very first interview with every student is one on one. On the first day she tells them that “She cannot want this more than they do, and that this day is the first day of the rest of your life.” She does not care where you have been or what you have done, just that you are going to make the most out of your efforts. If young people want help, she and her staff are there to help them be successful and they will teach them how to succeed.

They tried to provide all the elements to help them be the best that they can be as a person and a young adult.

River City CDC is one of the AmeriCorps sites in North Carolina. They have 30 slots for AmeriCorps youth and they provide services to several nonprofits in the area. This requires 450 hours of community service. They receive education awards at the end of their service, which helps many young people who enter the program with felonies and other impediments. This helps them get some funding to start school at some Community College or something else in order to help them learn their way out of poverty.

They do numerous things to stimulate the young people’s thinking and help them want to improve themselves. The CDC stimulates youth by setting the example themselves with a staff that is committed to achieving the results that they strive for every day. When they come through the doors each day, they get the same thing — a staff that wants to help them and which will be supportive during the entire process. They try to dismantle those things that will impede results.

The most important thing that the staff can work toward, is earning the respect and trust of these young people. In many instances, it will take some time but once they do, they go through the transformation that they seek. When the young people are asked why they enter the program, many are unable to answer directly, but some say that they want their GED while others just say they want to better their lives.

Along the way, a stipend is paid to the participants, which some participants view as being paid. However, some have children and families and others have transportation needs so the stipend assists them with these expenses — but payment for services, it is not. Some of the youth entering the program are hard to deal with, but the staff has a way of coping and encouraging.

Ms. Mackey says that this work has been rewarding. There is no doubt in her mind that love is the biggest element in breaking down the barriers that these children bring with them. But when the youth come through the door each morning, they are surrounded by the love. Staff personnel give them a lot of love, something that they never received at home and never will. Teachers such as Miss Hollingsworth and Miss Parker (both taught in public education for 30 years) now say this is the most rewarding thing they have ever done. They love the kids and teach them how to learn as well as how to be a better person.

River City CDC also has a program known as Youth Build. The goal is education, and enrollees receive two certifications — a GED and a Construction Certification. The hope is that these young people will go on to Community College and transfer from there to a four-year institution. They don’t try to steer them into a minimum wage job as they hope that they will choose a ‘living wage job’ with a career base.

The organization has really good partners such as Pepsi that provides them with funding to help their programs. In addition, they have one student who started out working part-time for Pepsi, and then became a full-time employee and now Pepsi is paying for this young person to go to college.

There is a full-time employee whose sole job is to contact employers and try to place their students in employment opportunities.

In addition to all of the above, if that is not enough, they have a Business Incubator that provides opportunities for small businesses to become successful. The business pays less than market rate for rent. The incubator also offers ‘handholding,’ which includes basic business fundamentals like selling, taxes, insurance, and host of other skills – all designed to convey the essentials tasks of operating a successful business. A partnership with ECSU brings a whole litany of small business technology, and related workshops.

A program known as New Generation uses three vacant lots – donated by Elizabeth City – to establish community gardens for people to learn how to grow their own food. They provide a work camp that brings people into the area to help with housing repairs that are targeted to elderly citizens who are unable to perform the repairs themselves. These people are approximately 400 youth and adults, capable of performing 50 to 60 home repairs in a week.

For seniors, age 50 and above, the, CDC built a project known as Renaissance Commons Elizabeth City. This is a 48 unit, $3.6 million senior housing complex that consists of affordable one and two bedroom apartments and a community center for independent adults. In addition, Renaissance Village is a 17-unit $1.7 million single-family home subdivision, which is complete and fully occupied. First time homebuyers and others — who initially believed that the American Dream of owning a home was impossible — found out that it was possible after all.

River City CDC is a HUD Certified Housing Counseling Agency.

Since all this started, Mrs. Mackey has come to realize that this is her purpose in life. She started along with an intern and had no money. She got a $2500 loan, and then a grant for $40,000 and that was how the initiative evolved. She jokingly says this has taken her from the “outhouse to the White House.”

Sometimes, she concedes that she is in awe of what the CDC has become. Mrs. Mackey says that she has been blessed as they have never had a steady source of income but the funds to stay the course, in the early days, and since, have always been there.

We suspect that there are the numerous reasons for the success of River City Community Development Corporation. But from our point of view, the hard work, determination and dedication — as well as the single mindedness of one person — is behind it all. That person is President and CEO Lenora Jarvis Mackey.