Soon after his 1989 arrival in Asheville, Julian Price realized that he needed a more structured way to donate his money and, in keeping with his quiet personality, he wanted to stay primarily behind the scenes. His desire was to fund people and businesses that weren’t likely to get conventional funding. So, he supported the Western North Carolina Branch of the Self-Help Credit Union, ensuring that more low- and middle-income people could have resources for housing and small businesses. He invested in the Affordable Housing Coalition, which helped lead to the strongest minimum housing code in North Carolina and a trust fund for affordable housing in Buncombe County. Price backed Mountain Microenterprise Fund (now Mountain BizWorks), an organization fostering start-up businesses through grants and training. He created the Dogwood Fund at the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, which in turn offered grants to nonprofits focusing on social justice and the environment. Price and Whalen fostered development and business projects by founding Public Interest Projects (PIP), a for-profit firm whose goal was to make Asheville a model, livable city. Price understood that by disseminating his ideas and funds to organizations determined to do good, he would be aiding those who might otherwise go unnoticed and unsupported.
Investing in People
Not long after Julian Price’s 1989 arrival in Asheville, he realized that structuring his Asheville investments would help his money go further and help him remain hands-on but also behind-the-scenes, where he liked to be.
At first, Price investigated projects on his own. One initial investment was in the Western North Carolina Regional Branch of the Self-Help Credit Union, opened in the late ‘80s to provide financing to low- and middle-income families who could not get bank loans to buy homes and create small businesses.
A small two-person office on 12 1/2 Wall Street housed the chapter. One day, Price walked in to talk with then director Beth Maczka.
“I think he was shocked that we were this tiny branch with one room and two desks,” says Maczka, now chief executive officer of the YWCA. “He asked about our work in Asheville and Western North Carolina, and by the time he left, he’d written a $100,000 check to open an account, the maximum Federally-insured deposit anyone could make at the time.” Self-Help (and any credit union) has to have enough deposits to secure any loans it makes.
“After Julian left that day, I called the main branch chapter in Durham and said, ‘What do I do with this check?’” says Maczka. “We had no vault, no tellers, no trappings of a typical financial institution.”
But Price had learned enough about Self-Help’s loan philosophy to trust the organization, says Maczka: “ I can’t imagine another nonprofit investor seeing what he saw about the importance of Self-Help’s projects. But he was committed to social justice. He had clarity and passion and wanted to invest in the underdog.”
Joyce Harrison, then the Union’s consumer lending officer, reviewed loan proposals, often pointing out higher-risk downtown business loans to Price. With his support in what was then a mostly boarded-up town, Self-Help made loans to businesses that created jobs: Blue Moon Bakery (now City Bakery), Cafe on the Square (now Posana), Salsa’s lunch counter, and the French Broad Food Co-op. “It was intentional and strategic investing,” says Jane Hatley, current executive director of Self-Help. “Julian would say, ‘We need to make these loans happen because we need these businesses downtown.’”
Price didn’t stop after his initial investment. He met with Martin Eakes, Self Help’s founder and chief executive officer. “Martin shared his strategy of using downtown historic buildings as branch offices and non-profit community incubators,” says Maczka. “Julian was taken with the [proposed] renovation of the Public Service Building in downtown Asheville and invested $1 million.” The restoration of the 1929 building was completed in 1992.
Price’s support of a shared home for nonprofits empowered the organizations, says Maczka, particularly the Affordable Housing Coalition. The move to the renovated Public Service Building put the Coalition in the same space with four of its member agencies, which had also moved in: Self-Help, Mountain Housing Opportunities, HelpMate, which dealt with domestic violence, and the NAACP. Says Maczka, “Having that contact broke down the isolation that nonprofits often have.”
“Self-Help was the first lender to make critical investments in local businesses that [had] the same flavor as the Asheville flavor people love now,” says Maczka. Since its opening, the WNC Regional Branch of Self-Help has made 889 home loans, totaling $47 million, and 467 commercial loans, totaling more than $43 million, including 39 childcare centers, nine charter schools, 32 green businesses, and 44 community facilities. It has also made 305 loans to African-Americans and 597 to Latinos.
Pushing for Affordable Space
Price’s passion for urban development and mixed-use housing also led him to invest in the Affordable Housing Coalition (AHC), founded in July, 1991. AHC comprised a group of twelve organizations–Mountain Housing Opportunities [MHO], Neighborhood Housing Services, Habitat for Humanity, and Pisgah Legal Services, among others, that built affordable housing or provided support services for those who needed it.
The organization’s earliest work was helping people who had no housing or who were paying to live in rented squalor. AHC also created a report card grading Asheville’s affordable housing by assessing rental and mixed-use housing, and home development. “The report, a great piece researched by Scott Dedman [Executive Director of MHO] and published in The Citizen Times, gave the community a D+,” says Maczka, a founding board member. “The report showed the need for a minimum housing code and became the foundation for all of our policy work.”
Price supported AHC’s fight for better policies, writing personal checks of about $25,000 for several years before he created more formal routes for giving. The situation was dire: “Realtors fought against the Minimum Housing Code and tried to influence our other funding sources such as the United Way,” says Maczka. “AHC responded by taking city officials on a bus tour in Montford and Chicken Hill, and off Charlotte Street, showing them the substandard housing, flophouses, and properties that were unsafe eyesores.”
AHC members also attended city meetings about housing development, says Maczka: “The city had a list of houses that needed to be demolished, so it was tearing down more houses than nonprofit developers were building.”
Victory came to AHC before its closing five years ago: The city passed the strongest minimum housing code in the state and [created] a housing trust fund [a fund for affordable housing] for Asheville and Buncombe County. “The minimum housing code stood for 18 years, until recent state legislation took away city rights to have separate standards,” says Maczka. “Over five thousand units were brought to code. And the policy stopped people from charging rent for unsafe houses.”
More proof of the minimum housing code’s success: Between 1994 and 2002, house fires decreased by 50 percent in Asheville while the state’s house fire rates remained unchanged.
Asheville is also now one of the few North Carolina cities with a housing trust fund, says Maczka: “Every resident supports affordable housing when they pay taxes. The city puts aside a half cent of every tax dollar, which generates $400,000-500,000 a year.”
Price supported AHC’s advocacy for better housing before it was acceptable, says Maczka: “He knew that it couldn’t be one house at a time. He saw that organizations had to work together, and that not everyone can be a homeowner but may still need a safe, decent home. He got that.”
One Friday night In 1992, Christopher Just, then director of the Mountain Microenterprise Fund (now Mountain BizWorks), got a call at home from Price asking how he could help the Fund. Just nervously answered that the next year’s budget was $75,000: “Julian said, ‘I’ll fund it,’ says Just. ‘Would getting a check by Monday be too late?’”
Soon, as Price and Pat Whalen, now president of of Public Interest Projects (PIP), formed PIP, Whalen called Just, inviting the Fund to move from Black Mountain into PIP’s offices on Page Avenue, along with other nonprofits.
The Fund worked like this: Entrepreneurs who had a business idea would meet in groups of 5 to 8 people. The Fund would offer training about cash flow and marketing. Each group would meet weekly for six weeks, members of each group helping each other flesh out business ideas. Members would then decide which idea in its group most merited application to the Fund for a loan of $500 to $2000.
Despite Price’s and Whalen’s generosity, the organization was in financial distress. Yet Just was optimistic: He had been asked by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in Flint, Michigan, to apply for a $150,000 grant, a promising invitation. And he had recently met Greg Walker-Wilson at an Association for Enterprise Opportunity conference and was struck by his eagerness to work for the Fund. “I didn’t want to go back to the same well,” says Just. “But I went to Pat and Julian and said ‘I’ve met this young man who would make a fantastic development director.’ Julian said, ‘How much?’ I said, $10,000. He wrote a check that day.”
Just hired Walker-Wilson, who had worked in management consulting, for three months: Walker-Wilson would have to raise the funds to stay longer. “I wrote 30 grant applications in six months,” says Walker-Wilson, who, after Just moved on, became director. “My wife had a baby three months after we arrived in Asheville. At night, one of us would be bouncing our colicky baby while the other edited a grant application. It was a whole family affair.”
The Fund received six or seven of the 30 grants, including the Mott grant, money that helped turn the organization around. “The first year we served 40 entrepreneurs and within several years we were serving 800-1000,” says Walker-Wilson. ”We [worked with] every four or five businesses that are downtown now. Julian’s $10,000 allowed us to survive and create a flourishing downtown business climate.”
When Walker-Wilson left in 2009, the fund had a budget of $1.5 million and 30 full-time and part-time staff with satellite offices in other counties. As of 2014, Mountain BizWorks had loaned $10 million to more than 750 business, creating 3,500 jobs.
Structured Giving for Nonprofits
By the early ‘90s, people knew that Price was investing in Asheville and were not shy about asking for contributions. So, he was looking for a way to make smart investments without being the front man. That quest led him to Pat Smith, then the executive director of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, housed downtown at the time on Biltmore Ave.
“He walked in wearing a pair of blue jeans wanting to know what we did, and if he gave us money, how we would use it,” says Smith. “He talked about his interest in sustainability and pedestrian improvements, and in helping low-income people.”
At the time, the Foundation had $5 million and two employees. Price wanted Smith to hire a grants administrator from his initial investment of almost $l million, which he named The Dogwood Fund. “He funded our first program director for 18 months until we had the resources to.”
He also gave the Foundation property he owned at Litchfield Beach, South Carolina, valued at $1 million. The sale of the lots and several other investments from Price enlarged the Fund to several million, a still existing endowment.
His fund allowed the Foundation to give grants up to $25,000, five times larger than earlier grants, says Kim McGuire, who was hired as the Foundation’s first program director: “And Julian wanted to do multiple-year grants. He knew it took longer than one year to get a project going.”
“He was very hands-on in the beginning,” adds McGuire. “He wanted to invest in groups with innovative ideas which were not getting much traditional funding”– start-ups like Gentlemen on the Move, an organization founded by black men to help others gain opportunities, and Women at Risk, a program for first-time felony offenders that helped them receive community service assignments instead of jail time.
What Price made possible through the Dogwood Fund was the Foundation’s ability to take risks and invest in innovative organizations like the Affordable Housing Coalition, which he began to fund through Dogwood rather than privately. But, not surprisingly, he insisted that no one outside the Foundation know who was behind the Dogwood Fund.
He also used his background as a journalist to help the Foundation tell its story to the community through newspapers, newsletters, and press releases, says Smith: “He helped us talk about what we could help people do for the community. Those weren’t our ideas. Those were his ideas.”
The Dogwood Fund has given more than 200 grants totaling $2 million to 125 nonprofit organizations in Asheville and Western North Carolina.
“Julian was behind the scenes by choice, but he was involved in everything,” says McGuire. “His legacy will live well beyond his years because of who he was and what he did with the resources he had.”
Public Interest Projects: A For-Profit Path to Giving
In 1991, Price sat down with Pat Whalen to discuss a broader way to invest in Asheville. Whalen, a lawyer, had been advising Price for a year about early donations. “Julian said, “I’d like to start investing in the community more directly but in a way that makes business sense so that other people will invest,’” says Whalen.
At first, the pair considered creating a venture capital firm that would fund projects in four counties. But within six months, they realized that, given the amount of money Price had to invest–about $10 million initially–focusing on downtown Asheville made more sense.
“We saw downtown investments as a way to rebuild the local economy,” says Whalen. “And they would help deal with environmental issues, such as offering an alternative place to live other than a subdivision, keeping cars off the road. Asheville had all these old empty buildings and boarded up storefronts. We thought let’s create residential opportunities and invest in businesses that will make it exciting to live downtown.”
The pair also thought about creating a nonprofit organization. But as Whalen researched the option, he realized that regulations governing nonprofits would prevent certain investments. “We decided that if we created a for-profit organization we could reinvest any money we made into downtown.”
They also realized that they didn’t want Price’s handprint on everything. “”It was important for Asheville to represent all the different threads of the community,” says Karen Ramshaw, now Vice-President of Public Interest Projects. “We didn’t want downtown to look like any one person’s vision.”
The result: In 1990, Price and Whalen founded Public Interest Projects (PIP), a for-profit development company. Its goal was to create a national model for urban living, says Whalen. Their investment philosophy was to invest in innovative people who were already creating downtown buzz like the tiny lunch counter at the YMCA that became Laughing Seed or Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, then in cramped quarters. They secured a loan for the French Broad Co-op so it could move from the River Arts District to downtown and bought the Fine Arts Theatre, holding it until businessman John Cram could do the renovations. And they purchased empty buildings like Carolina Apartments, the Asheville Hotel, and the Old Penney’s Building, creating apartments and condos, and ground-floor businesses.
“Julian was willing to risk his money and accept a very low rate of return,” says Ramshaw. “Developers and banks saw that the projects [we funded] were good investments, and then developers started their own projects, and banks were more willing to put money into downtown.”
Price handed Whalen, then President of PIP, his checkbook, eager to shed himself of the money, to have someone else control it. “But I was very impressed with Julian’s thought process about what we were doing,” says Whalen. “He was used to having money. I’d say, ‘This project will cost $200,000 so we can’t do it.’ He would say, ‘It’s just $200,000, so let’s do it.’ I wanted Julian to keep the ownership of his money because he had great perspective.”
Initially, Whalen and Ramshaw envisioned that PIP would act as a board of directors for businesses PIP invested in. “We ended up recognizing that capital was just one piece of what the businesses needed,” says Ramshaw. “They also needed accounting and management help. We were not investors; we were business partners. Costing, [the cost of running a business]* training, finding the gaps and filling them became our job.”
In its 25 years, PIP has invested more than $15 million into downtown. It has been the force behind 14 downtown building overhauls and has created 97 market-rate housing units, 16 retail spaces, and 15,000 square feet of office space in what had been vacant buildings. It also created the award-winning Orange Peel and supported the development of 18 downtown businesses, including the first area wireless network.
“I’m really proud of the way we’ve worked together, and the way entrepreneurs have worked with us,” says Whalen. “Lots of people care about Asheville, and it’s been rewarding to have had the part we got to play. The response has outstripped anything we dreamt of.”
In 2015 alone, Asheville has been named one of America’s top 12 music cities, top 12 “Foodie” cities, one of the nine most romantic cities and one of the top 20 “coolest” cities. The accolades mount, but Ramshaw points out perhaps the best one: “On a Tuesday night in Asheville, the sidewalks are full with all kinds of people who love being a part of it. And that’s what we really wanted: People to show up.”