New Coalition Aims to Revitalize Local Economy
Since its founding last year, the Oberlin Community Benefits Coalition has pursued involvement in the construction of a new Oberlin public school for grades K-12. At a school board meeting on April 22, the group presented its vision for the school: a project the Coalition considers capable of revitalizing the community by providing job training and employment.
“It started because we knew there was a school being developed in town,” said Ruth Palmer, a co- spokesperson of OCBC. “There were a couple of facts we knew already. One is that we knew there was a core of people in this town that don’t have jobs. We also know this is reflected in that 50 per- cent of the children in our schools are eligible for free or reduced lunches, which shows people are not being paid enough to be able to buy lunch for their kids. So our thought was, if we’re going to build a school, it’s important that people who live here in this town are able to buy lunch for their kids.”
The new school has become a symbol for OCBC, representing more than new classrooms for the town’s students.
“When we knew there was a school being built, we saw this as an opportunity for our community to build a great school, because education is so important to get out of poverty, but also to give people who are in poverty the ability to get themselves out,” Palmer added. “One of the things that we are asking in our agreement is not only for people to be able to work during the building of this school, but that they are also able to have a career that will take them the rest of their lives.”
OCBC describes the Community Benefits Agreement, its current project, as a pact between developer and community, covering major development and construction projects to ensure that benefits will be spread across the whole community.
In the building of Oberlin’s school, OCBC asked that local workers be hired and paid a living wage, that those workers represent the diversity of the community, and that lasting training programs be established to build the local workforce and supply people with the skills they need for sustainable careers.
CBAs have been widely used across the country. According to Arlene Dunn, another co-spokesperson for OCBC, they are gaining momentum.
“They’re reaching critical mass,” she said.
However, CBAs have not been free of criticism. Some see the agreements as a means for developers to push less desirable projects by paying off the community with adjunct projects, such as adding a public park to compensate for the construction of a superstore that would ultimately close down local businesses. In other parts of the country, there have been legal issues surrounding CBAs and their alleged use of contract zoning. Contract zoning refers to the practice by which a local legislative body circumvents established ordinances by giving its power to a private party to secure rights to certain properties. CBAs have been criticized for removing the transparency of that public process by acting as private parties instead of community advocacy groups.
OCBC has established a framework to avoid those failures by requiring transparency in the decision-making process and shared responsibility for conformity to the agreement.
If the agreement is adopted, the group anticipates many benefits for Oberlin. By bringing about the employment of more members of the community, OCBC hopes to support a locally sustainable economy to raise standards of living. Local wealth means more purchasing power within the community. For the school, this means families will be able to provide more support for their children.
“We’re leaving out a whole bunch of people because of poverty, because of not having money and jobs,” Palmer said. “We’re
leaving out all these people, and we want that to change.”
Dunn agreed, adding, “We’re not looking for handouts just for the poor community. This should benefit the whole community.”
Both Palmer and Dunn view the OCBC as an extension of Oberlin’s tradition of progress.
“Oberlin has always been one of the communities in the country that has always pushed for equality,” Dunn explained.
“They’ve always done that, and this is a thing we want to do again, to lead the way in equality as well as excellence. This is what we’re hoping to achieve: a new way of doing business, because the old way is not working anymore, because we’re leaving a group of people who could be paying taxes, who could be getting their children better able to compete in the world,” Dunn said.