By Todd Cohen
SANFORD, N.C. — During her interview in January 1997 for the job of executive director, Kate Rumely asked board members at Brick Capital Community Development Corp. in Sanford about an abandoned school on South Vance Street.
Today, the nonprofit development firm is transforming that former school into a community center to serve a burgeoning neighborhood of low-income houses and apartments it has helped develop.
“You cannot renovate communities and build new communities and expect people to increase their wealth if you leave a school in derelict shape for vagrants to use as housing,” says Rumely, the group’s executive director.
Formed in 1990, Brick Capital initially teamed up with the city’s planning department to build three homes in a federally-funded pilot program.
The homes were built in what had been a traditionally African-American neighborhood southwest of downtown that had deteriorated because many of its 200 to 300 homes had been built decades earlier without basic utilities.
After many of those homes were demolished during urban renewal efforts in the 1960s, the vacant lots that remained fell into disarray.
Using federal funds, the city in the late 1980s installed new water and sewer lines, streets, curbs and gutters for roughly half the neighborhood.
After selling the first three homes it built in the early 90s, Brick Capital used the revenue, about $100,000, to create a loan pool to continue developing houses.
Supplementing that loan pool with bank and government loans, Brick Capital has invested nearly $6 million to develop 43 houses, 40 low-income apartment units, and 12 apartment units of supportive housing for victims of domestic violence and people who are mentally ill.
And next summer, Brick Capital expects to open the W.B. Wicker School, its community center, at a cost of $5 million to $6 million.
Other than eight houses built in Broadway, east of Sanford, and 40 apartment units in the Jonesboro neighborhood, all the housing has been built near the school.
Built in the late 1920s as part of a network of schools for African Americans in the South funded by former Sears executive Julius Rosenwald, the school was abandoned in the 1980s.
Bill Wilson, a Sanford lawyer and president of the Brick Capital board, acquired the school at an auction and donated it in 2001 to the nonprofit.
The new center, named for the long-time principal of what was known as the Lee County Training School, will include a children’s dental clinic operated by Lee County; dental hygienist and assistant program offered by Central Carolina Community College; mental health services for children and their families offered by Excel; day-care center; community computer center; and business incubator for 10 tenants.
The center is being developed with design services from Chapel Hill architect Arthur Cogswell, renovations by Progressive Contracting Co. in Sanford, and technical assistance from Durham-based Self Help, a partner on the project.
Rumely credits Brick Capital’s partners, especially the city, for progress in developing the neighborhood.
“Brick Capital strives to provide a more livable community for its particular target neighborhood,” she says, “and for all the people of Sanford and Lee County.”