Milo-Grogan Leaders Tackle Challenges of Gentrification Head-On
Charles Thompkins grew up in Milo-Grogan and has been actively involved as a leader in the neighborhood for decades. That involvement has ranged from serving as Chair of the Milo-Grogan Area Commission, to creating the Milo Fest, to organizing an adopt-a-family effort at Christmas that is now in its 35th year.
“I’ve been doing this kind of stuff for over 40 years, and with my wife [Melissa] along with me for 20-some years,” he says, “but it’s different now.”
Change is coming to the neighborhood, and Thompkins recognizes that new strategies will be needed moving forward.
“It’s different now because action is needed…you have a gentrification process, and when people feel that that’s going on, it’s important to show that people can come together and that we can remain a community.”
The rising property values and developer interest that have long been predicted for the neighborhood – fueled in part by its location, just north of Downtown and east of Italian Village – have arrived, and there’s no indication that a slow-down is coming any time soon.
In 2015, when construction started on the 600,000-square-foot Rogue Fitness facility at the corner of Fifth and Cleveland Avenues, it marked the first activity on the 30-acre site since the Timken Company shuttered its plant there in 1989. All of a sudden, what had been an empty lot in the heart of the neighborhood for a generation was filled with activity. The complex opened in 2016, housing the manufacturing, distribution, office and retail operations of the company.
Although there were some rough patches at first, Rogue has since become a fixture in the neighborhood, hiring local residents and participating in community events. Some of the company’s employees have even bought houses and moved into the neighborhood.
Three blocks south of the Rogue facility, a new, market-rate apartment complex recently opened, and new single family homes are planned for several nearby lots. Rogue has also floated a plan to build an arena on undeveloped land that the company owns along Fifth Avenue.
According to data published by the City of Columbus, the total appraised value of property in the main residential portion of Milo-Grogan (south of Fifth Avenue) increased by 23% between 2012 and 2017. And since then, home prices have continued to rise, as measured by sales data provided by realtor Joe Peffer – 27 homes sold in the neighborhood in 2017, for an average price of $40,890 (the highest price was $175,500), while in 2019, 31 homes sold for an average sale price $77,744 (and a high price of $298,000).
New homes currently under construction in the neighborhood will be priced above $300,000.
The challenges that residents of urban neighborhoods face when this kind of real estate appreciation begins to take hold have been well-documented. Rising property values can lead to a greater tax burden for seniors and other homeowners, and tensions can flare between the newcomers and those with roots in the place that often go back generations.
“We’ve been trying to get in front of that the best we can, [but] you can’t stop growth; it’s gonna happen, and we want to welcome it,” Thompkins says, citing the positive changes that can come with new investment in a neighborhood. “Sometimes you don’t aways want to eat at a fast food place, you want to have real restaurants, nice homes, nice things in the community…so our seniors, they understand that, they want to see the changes, but they don’t want it to hurt them.”
That’s why Melissa Thompkins started organizing monthly coffee meet-ups for seniors in the neighborhood. Residents can socialize, but also hear about resources that are available to help them now, like assistance with home repairs, or information on how to challenge a new property tax assessment.
Charles Thompkins also started an annual event designed to both celebrate the neighborhood’s successes and to provide a place for new residents and longtime community members to meet and get to know each other. At the latest one, held at the Milo-Grogan Community Center in December, Charles handed out awards to local businesses and community partners.
Everyone was invited – neighbors, politicians, city officials, faith leaders – and, judging from the crowd, most of the people who were invited showed up, despite frigid temperatures and an overflowing parking lot.
One of the groups that was honored at the event was Veritas Community Church, which has a congregation in Italian Village and has, in recent years, invested in two different Milo-Grogan-focused initiatives – a community development corporation called Cultivate, and an internship program in which young adults live in a renovated house in the neighborhood and set aside time each week to volunteer in the community.
It’s an ambitious undertaking. Michael Dalton, a Cultivate board member, puts it this way in a video posted on the project’s website; “In five years we would really envision a vibrant, revitalized, but preserved neighborhood that really draws on the strengths of what already exists in the neighborhood and the neighbors who live there.” The other path, to be avoided, he says, is a community that “experiences gentrification and potentially moving historical residents that have been there 30-40-50 years, and them having to move out of the neighborhood.”
Milo-Grogan’s leaders have worked to make sure that new groups like the Veritas volunteers are welcomed into the community. They also have strived to recognize the efforts of the many African American churches – like Triedstone Missionary Baptist and Greater Love Outreach Ministries – that have called Milo-Grogan home for decades and have never wavered in their connection to and support for the community.
Matt Martin, Community Research and Grants Management Officer for the Columbus Foundation, attended the community event in December and has been working with the neighborhood as the Foundation makes it a funding priority. He recognizes the power of what he calls a “uniquely engaged group of residents,” but also cautions that the neighborhood is facing many of the same types of challenges that other urban neighborhoods have struggled to overcome.
He points out that, although Milo-Grogan “boasts some great nonprofit and institutional assets,” those groups “have struggled to develop more cohesion, in many ways reflecting the neighborhood’s history of being divided by the railroads, commercial corridors, and Interstate 71.”
Those physical barriers will not be going away anytime soon. Most of the development interest and real estate appreciation of the last few years has occurred in a relatively small slice of the neighborhood – south of Fifth Avenue, and west of I-71 – and the houses and businesses that are located outside of that area can feel disconnected from the rest of the neighborhood.
Martin sees plenty of reason for optimism, though. The Columbus Foundation contributes funding to several organizations operating in Milo-Grogan, including Homeport – the affordable housing nonprofit that recently built 33 new homes in the area and has also funded home renovations – and the Boys and Girls Club on Cleveland Avenue. Martin says that the foundation is also “looking forward to supporting a leadership academy for residents in 2020 to expand the pipeline of resident leaders who can help direct the neighborhood’s future.”
“We have taken note of the resilience and resourcefulness of organizations and residents in the neighborhood, and have been seeking to provide timely resources to help increase collaboration across the neighborhood,” he adds. “And to help make sure that residents can remain in their homes and remain active participants in revitalization efforts as regional housing pressures begin to influence property taxes and rents in Milo-Grogan.”
For Charles and Melissa Thompkins, the campaign to help longtime residents stay in their homes and to preserve their community’s close-knit culture also involves a more direct approach. If you are new to the neighborhood, don’t be surprised to get a knock on the door, followed quickly by an invitation to the next neighborhood meeting, clean-up or cookout.
“We’ve been going to meet them, and introducing ourselves,” says Charles. “When we find out there are new neighbors moving in, I go, or other commissioners go…we invite them to a [Milo-Grogan Civic Association] meeting or to a commission meeting, or to an event…so they get to know the community and get involved.”
The goal is to make that first interaction with their new neighbors a positive one. When someone spends over $300,000 on a new home and looks across the street and sees a house with chipped paint or a falling gutter, sometimes the first instinct is to call code enforcement, which Charles knows can start a cycle of conflict and resentment that only leads to a divided neighborhood, a place where longtime residents feel disrespected and new residents lack any real connection to the historic fabric of the community.
“So far, [the visits] have been working pretty good, some of the new neighbors have come and told us later that they appreciated that,” he says, although he is quick to add that there is plenty more work to do, and is hopeful that the city in particular can step up to provide resources to help existing homeowners.
“We have chance to figure out how to fix this, and we’re not gonna be able to fix it 100%, but we are trying to figure this out as a collective group, it’s not just one person,” Charles adds. “If you’re sitting around and pointing fingers, you’re not part of the solution, you’re creating mistrust where there shouldn’t be.”
For Melissa, it all boils down to building on the work that her and her husband – and so many other volunteers and local activists – have been doing for decades.
“It is a special community,” she says. “Longtime residents value this culture of Milo, and new residents have moved here to become a part of it.”