Cemala aims to be responsive, strategic

By Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — As founding executive director of Action Greensboro, an effort by a handful of local foundations to revive the region’s economy, Susan Schwartz spent five years spearheading targeted strategies to boost public education, entrepreneurship, the workforce and the center city.

Now, a year after becoming executive director of the Cemala Foundation, an Action Greensboro partner, Schwartz is working to help the family foundation continue to address local nonprofits’ needs while investing in strategic initiatives to strengthen the community.

“My focus here, and this is what the family wants me to do, is help them make good decisions about their investments and partner with the other foundations,” Schwartz says.

Formed in 1986 by Martha A. Cone and Ceasar Cone II, a son of the founder of Cone Mills, the foundation has assets of $48 million and makes grants of $2 million to $2.5 million a year, mainly to local nonprofits.

Overseeing the foundation, which has two staff members, is a 12-member board, including 10 members of the Cone family,  eight of them living outside the region, and two local at-large members — Carole Bruce, a lawyer at Smith Moore, and John Bakane, CEO of Cone Denim.

So a key task for Schwartz, she says, is keeping family board members informed about local developments.

Many of those developments are both the fruit and focus of a collaborative approach in which Schwartz has played a key role for much of the time since the mid-1980s.

After serving as president of the Junior League of Greensboro in 1986-87, the Winston-Salem native spent four years working for a citizen-driven strategic planning process for the city.

The effort, known as Greensboro Vision, focused on housing, transportation, economic development, public education and land use.

Recommendations by Greensboro Visions led to formation of a housing department for the city; the allocation of tax dollars for affordable housing; transfer to the city of a bus system that had been operated by Duke Power Co.; and the merger of the school systems for Greensboro, High Point and Guilford County.

Schwartz next served four years as director of Piedmont Triad Horizons, now an 11-county regional effort known as the Piedmont Triad Partnership,  that focused on housing, transportation, education, land use and economic development.

After working on similar issues in New Jersey, Schwartz returned to the Triad in 1998, working initially for Downtown Greensboro before becoming the first executive director of Action Greensboro when it was formed.

Based on recommendations from community task forces, Action Greensboro helped generate over $70 million in investment and spurred development of First Horizon Stadium and Center City Park, downtown housing and marketing, and the merger of Action Greensboro with the Greensboro Chamber and Forward Greensboro to form the Greensboro Partnership.

Now, as Action Greensboro gears up for its second round of initiatives, Schwartz says, the Cemala Foundation plans to continue to serve as a key partner.

Key priorities for Action Greensboro likely will include preparing children for school, revitalizing the center city and developing the 4.2-mile greenway loop downtown, Schwartz says, with collaboration continuing to be an underlying strategy.

“We really have been able to get lots of people involved,” she says.

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