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He didn’t know what to expect when the door opened.

Trash and debris swept the floor, mounting in the corners. Ripped chunks in drywall exposed bones of bare pipes and wooden framing. Before Will Pass and his partners walked inside a Hilltop property already over 100 years old, the home had sat abandoned for decades on Conrad Street. Another met them with boarded windows and a collapsing roof.

“They were in pretty bad shape,” Pass said, taking a step inside a much different living room today. “Knowing what that Hilltop area looked like, I said this would be a prime place for us to start — because it’s an area that’s been overlooked”

Pitt Pass, a budding real estate development group in Wilmington, acquired these two homes on Conrad Street from the city land bank. Standing between new walls, on new floors, among bright windows, Pass and his business partners, Chris Pitt and Randy Washington, showed how one property has already taken a complete transformation from previous blight. As the other follows suit, both will become affordable housing.

“That’s been our entry point,” Pass said, his company just two years old. “And we’re just going to keep building off that.”

Now, one new program hopes to inspire similar opportunities.

Jumpstart Wilmington — sharing its name with the original Jumpstart Germantown program in Philadelphia — officially took root in Delaware by fall 2020, aiming to empower aspiring developers to revitalize communities in their own city. It offers training sessions, mentorships and funding options across multiple cohorts each year. About 70 people have graduated so far.

“As a minority developer, you just don’t see a lot of folks who look like us,” said Pass, who joined a cohort himself in 2021. “Having a program like Jumpstart, having folks come from that community — they get it. They get the dynamics in place, and they want to make a positive change.”

And after this week, Jumpstart may add another element to its curriculum. The program could offer its graduates access to several city-owned and abandoned properties in West Center City.

This portion of Jumpstart’s property acquisition pilot program — sponsored by Councilwoman Bregetta Fields in an ordinance set for consideration this Thursday in City Council — would grant seven properties in her district to Jumpstart graduates. Abandoned homes on West 4th through West 8th streets in West Center City would be allotted through a city partnership with the Wilmington Neighborhood Conservancy Land Bank and Wilmington Housing Authority, then committed to becoming affordable housing options.

Fields’ measure moved out of the Finance & Economic Development Committee unanimously Monday evening. Bob Weir, director of Real Estate and Housing in Wilmington, told the committee he hopes this framework will only expand to other neighborhoods. Jumpstart already plans to acquire five other blighted properties for its graduates.

Jumpstart Wilmington hopes to give more people “a foot in the door” to residential development, mirroring success seen 40 miles northeast. Councilwoman Fields hopes to inject new life into District 5.

So, what is Jumpstart anyway?

Tried program, new city

A cyclist rides past an abandoned row home on the corner of Lamotte and E. 22nd St.

Dionna Sargent would say she brought Jumpstart to Wilmington for a simple reason: Need.

“A lot of the developers — affordable housing, nonprofit, for-profit — they all said we need more developers. How often do you hear people say, ‘We want more competition?’” posed the vice president of community development with Cinnaire.

“There’s so much vacancy and blight within Wilmington, our existing development community is saying we can’t do it alone.”

The Philadelphia native first heard of the Germantown outfit at a conference over three years ago, listening to founder Ken Weinstein discuss his over 1,000 graduates, 213 new units and more than $22 million in loans.

Weinstein grew the program from a couple students in 2015 to multiple training sessions a year with over 60 people at a time. His program would go on to equip local minds with development training basics, regardless of their access to capital walking in, and offer finance options for coming projects to remove blight in Germantown. The program has already expanded to Philadelphia’s Kensington, Southwest, West Philly, Hunting Park, North Philly West and Tioga neighborhoods.

Sargent was sold.

“Just recognizing the landscape here in Wilmington, I was intrigued by that idea,” she said. “Getting people from the community involved in developing their own community.”

By 2020, the first cohort was announced. Four sessions, 14 hours. The first application round attracted over 100 applicants, filling the first four cohorts. Sargent is already managing a waiting list for coming cohorts, as 2022 is full.

Sargent started firing questions. How do you identify a property’s zoning? If a variance or zoning change is needed, how do you navigate it? How does the permitting process take shape? How do you develop a scope of work? How do you develop a construction budget? How do you put together your development team? Also, what does the City Planning Commission do? The Real Estate and Housing Department? Navigating licenses and inspections? Refinancing?

“We train them to do all of that,” she said. “The program actually looks more favorably on people with less development experience… because everyone needs a Jumpstart. They need to get their foot in the door.”

On top of experience level, Jumpstart Wilmington looks to invest in those passionate about revitalizing the city around them. Residents are prioritized. And, so far, Sargent says her program has reflected the city.

“An overwhelming majority identify as a person of color, and a little over the majority tends to be female-identified,” she estimated in an interview with USA TODAY Network. “Over 80% of our applicants identify as a person of color. Of that 80% or so, I would say 70% of them identify as Black.”

Somewhere inside her statistics would be Quincy Watkins and Cassandra Sifford.

“What attracted me was the robustness of all the different areas of coverage, right — but also, there would be ongoing support to help it actually become a reality,” said Watkins, a small business owner and pastor who graduated from the program in 2021.

Graduates are paired with mentors, established developers in the city and surrounding area. Continued programming is also available after graduation, alongside networking with fellow developers and access to lending options.

Sifford had already been trying to break into development for a few years, she said, when Jumpstart Wilmington “fell into my lap.” Balancing full-time work and a family, the New Castle resident is now turning her sights on renovating a home in Southbridge.

“I just wanna let anybody know who may be considering real estate development: If you have some interest in it, get into it,” said the fellow 2021 graduate. “You have to step outside of your comfort zone because if you’re comfortable there, you’ll never grow.”

Watkins, a Chicago native who landed in the First State, has already grown his Milk & Honey Café since opening in 2019. Stepping away from Jumpstart, he plans to develop a mixed-use condominium building in Wilmington.

The pastor has high hopes for his chosen home.

“There are a lot of unfortunate properties that have been either underdeveloped or have suffered some issues — but they’re still in vibrant neighborhoods,” he said. “So why not try to kind of bring them back to life?”

New pilot program, new hope for a district

Bregetta Fields celebrates her win the Wilmington City council District 5 race Tuesday at Constitution Yards.

Chris Pitt glanced up Conrad Street as he stepped out of the new renovation.

“I promise you, not everybody can do it,” he said, eyes wandering to another building whose progress must have stopped right after new windows. “So, I guess my point would be: When you’ve got good people trying to do this work, you should really want to support them because it’s not easy… It’s not easy.”

Pitt Pass Development Group has offered mentorship to any Jumpstart graduates making it through the program. The team knows barriers, from funding to unexpected issues, make the path to development strenuous throughout the city, especially when dealing with blighted buildings. For them, more projects lie ahead in Hilltop, with aims to slowly revitalize the neighborhood with affordable rentals and home-ownership programs.

It’s a vision Councilwoman Fields wants to see stretch across her district.

“It was a no-brainer,” she said. “We have these properties sitting here. They’re not being utilized. Day and day go by, and nothing’s being done to them. Why not give these developers an opportunity to really show other people, the community — be a poster child for the Jumpstart program?”

Fields knows it could be a few years before all seven properties of this pilot program are reshaped into affordable housing options, but she says investment in her district is long overdue.

“I just think the Fifth District might have gotten lost, you know, over the last 10-15 years… I’ll say the attention wasn’t here in the Fifth District,” she said. “And now that I’m here, I want to bring attention to it.”

Jumpstart, too, is just beginning to grow. Not every graduate will likely stick with real estate development, but graduates and developers like Pitt Pass say they’ll be watching.

“There are going be plenty of obstacles in the way. But we’re looking at the long play, and it’s really changing communities,” Washington said.

“So, we’re here to stay.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Wilmington developer training aims to get homes into local hands


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