Economic Recovery Is Taking Strong Roots in Inner Cities

Atlanta--James Brooks talks about what the Inner City 100 recognition means to the company and why he thinks cities are powerful economic engines.

James Brooks

Atlanta-based Boulevard Group, a program management and urban residential development company, recently won a spot on the Inner City 100, which is a list of the 100 fastest growing companies in America’s Inner Cities. Located in the Grant Park neighborhood, Boulevard Group is the only company from Georgia and the only developer on the list. The program spotlights and supports city economies in order to develop strong urban communities. Boulevard Group is the only company on the list to actually work to improve inner cities through urban revitalization.

Each year, ICIC and Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine put out a call for nominations and select the fastest-growing from among the applicants. The winners are determined based on revenue growth over a five-year period.

Boulevard Group is committed to inner city neighborhood revitalization, with an emphasis on affordable housing. It was founded in 1997 by James Brooks who is now the president and CEO of the company. He talks to MHN about what this award means to the company and why he thinks cities are powerful economic engines.

MHN: What does this award mean to your company?

Brooks: Inner city revitalization is the focus of our company; we specialize in it. We also have a strong focus on affordable housing, so the award is not just recognition for being located in the inner city but also for doing the revitalization work. We see the award as recognition not just for being based here, but also for the work we do. We think that inner city revitalization is actually where economic recovery is taking its strongest roots, so we’re very pleased on both those levels.

MHN: Why do you think you won the award?

Brooks: The Inner City 100 looks at the level of steady and sustained growth of a company over the last number of years in terms of revenue etc. so on a technical level that’s why we made it. But I believe, we continue to grow because we are focused on revitalization of the inner city. It speaks volumes that we are able to achieve this kind of growth in a very difficult economy and we think it’s because we are focused on inner city and affordable housing. I am a new Urbanist and have always felt that cities are the lifeblood of the economy. Unfortunately, during the 60s, 70s and 80s, due to the suburban sprawl, more and more of the resources that would have gone into the city got scattered around. Now, people are beginning to realize what an economic engine the city is and it is important to be fully invested in cities. Look at what Detroit is doing. It is looking to downsize its city limits because they just don’t have resources to manage its huge suburban sprawl.

MHN: Do you differentiate between inner city and city?

Brooks: In a way I don’t. Inner city can sometimes be used as a negative word. It is code word for ghetto. We don’t see it that way at all. To me, inner city means right at the core and the award uses the same definition. There is no question that a lot of the work we do is in distressed neighborhoods and a lot of our focus is revitalizing distressed neighborhoods in the inner city. But we are located in a historic area of Atlanta, which can by no means be called distressed. It’s a wonderful neighborhood but it is ‘inner city.’

MHN: What are the specific challenges of working in the inner city?

Brooks: A lot of the traditional developments, investment and banking communities still see suburban projects as the only way to go. A lot of their models and underwriting are still sort of geared more toward suburban investment because that is what it was about for so long. So a big challenge is convincing conventional banks that they need to be looking at the inner city but not as a distressed place that needs special help but really looking at it as a viable place to invest in.

The thing about the inner city is that infrastructure, transportation, mass transit and government and other institutions are already there. It makes more sense as an investment than the suburbs where none of this exists.

MHN: How has Boulevard Group tackled the finance issues that came with this recession?

Brooks: We have a lot of skill in accessing various government sources of financing, available through HUD, Fannie Mae, or LIHTC programs. Since we have experience and skill doing that, we were bale to access those financing vehicles when conventional debt and equity were not available.

MHN: What projects is the company working on right now?

Brooks: Most of our projects are very long term. Over the last two years, we’ve been involved in the development of little more than 1000 units of housing plus any mixed-use components in those projects. Currently, we have ongoing projects in Chicago, Montgomery, Toledo, Charlotte and Birmingham. All of these cities have economic challenges right now mainly due to decreases in tax revenue but they are finding ways to overcome those challenges. Currently, we have in planning about 1,500 units, which will come online over the next three to five years depending on the market.

MHN: What would Boulevard Group like to accomplish in the year ahead?

Brooks: We want to continue to focus on affordable housing development in inner city as well as smart growth and green development. We believe that is especially important for the inner city. We want to show developers that green building can be done in inner cities—for the purposes of reducing the impact on inner city infrastructure and creating models for sustainability in inner cities.