By N’namdi Green

Today, faith-based organizations continue to influence communities beyond the religious realm. Bethel Missionary Baptist Church of Tallahassee is a prime example of a faith-based organization inserting itself into non-conventional fields.

Bethel has been at the forefront of economic development within the Frenchtown community in Tallahassee for almost 30 years. This includes past projects such as Bethel Towers, a 60-unit affordable housing apartment complex for the elderly, and the affordable housing neighborhood of Carolina Oaks. Leaders from the church see economic development as a platform to give back to the community. Bethel’s redevelopment projects seek to re-establish the once vibrant identity of Frenchtown.

An upcoming project on West Tennessee Street, proposed in conjunction with the Frenchtown Redevelopment Partners LLC, is one way the church hopes to bring economic prosperity and identity back to the Frenchtown community. This initiative is a mixed-use housing complex with a grocery store, retail space, economy drug store, a financial institution, and office incubators.

The reasoning for fusing these various entities together is rooted in the expressed needs of the community and the vision the church has for the area according to those directly involved in the project and interviewed for this article. In an interview for this article with one of Bethel’s economic empowerment leaders, members of the community approached Bethel with their ideas about what should be included in the project. The church took these suggestions under consideration. By working with community members, they believe, Bethel provides the foundation for restoring Frenchtown without sacrificing its identity.

Bethel’s leadership felt the community lagged economically compared to other parts of Tallahassee such as Midtown, a neighborhood that encourages development with a sense of culture. Bethel intends for the project to remedy some of the neighborhood’s economic shortcomings by developing businesses and educating members of Frenchtown through community empowerment programs. The proposed financial institution would counsel individuals on topics such as personal budgeting, money management, and debt prevention. If members of the community are economically empowered, Bethel believes the neighborhood will begin to thrive again.

A 2015 report by Governing Magazine states that programs funded by Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund (CFE Fund), a non-profit organization, saved clients an average of  $3,000. They did so by providing one on one financial guidance for individuals in poor neighborhoods in five major cities across the United States. Financial education initiatives and economic redevelopment are pertinent to Bethel’s focus of regaining Frenchtown’s unique economic identity.

As the project continues, Bethel may be laying important groundwork for a new path toward private-sector led urban revitalization. Whether these efforts create sustainable roots in the community has yet to be seen, but ongoing research and monitoring of these projects should provide important clues to how cities can reset the course of economic development in marginalized communities.

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