The director of the Department of Neighborhoods is bringing a message of economic hope to some of Columbus' most distressed communities.

The city of Columbus' Department of Neighborhoods remains a work in progress. Roughly two years since its creation, the department is still merging units and personnel together under one roof at the Point of Pride building in Linden. Eventually, the building at East 11th and Cleveland avenues will house various neighborhood-focused programs, including the 311 call center, the Community Relations Commission, neighborhood liaisons and the New American Initiative, an immigrant and refugee outreach effort.

The building also will be the home of Carla Williams-Scott, the veteran government and nonprofit leader chosen by Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther to serve as his neighborhoods czar. She has a temporary office in the city's Jerry Hammond Center on East Broad Street, but she plans to relocate to the Point of Pride building. Her future presence highlights the importance of neighborhood revitalization under Ginther, who frequently identifies his top three mayoral priorities as “neighborhoods, neighborhoods, neighborhoods.” Not only will the city's new “one-stop shop” for community services be embedded in the heart of struggling Linden rather than at City Hall. So will the person responsible for directing the new department and delivering Ginther's message of economic hope to places that haven't enjoyed in Columbus' recent growth and prosperity.

In March, Williams-Scott sits in a cavernous conference room at the Point of Pride building, talking about the significance of her department's Linden commitment. She stresses she and her colleagues serve all neighborhoods in the city, not just Linden. But some places do need more attention than others, and that's why Ginther made the revitalization of Linden—long one of the city's most neglected areas—a top concern. Williams-Scott cites a personal analogy often used by her boss when he discusses Linden, the Hilltop and other economically disadvantaged neighborhoods the city has focused on since he took office in 2016. Ginther was raised in a household with many foster children, and when someone would ask his mother which child she loved the most, her response was, “The one that needs me the most.”

“Right now, Linden needs us,” Williams-Scott says. “The Hilltop needs us. I'm not saying Clintonville doesn't need us, but as a community, we can look around and see where there's a greater need.” Of course, Williams-Scott isn't the first Columbus public official to talk a good urban revitalization game. City leaders, for instance, also hailed the Point of Pride building, the Department of Neighborhoods' new home, as a linchpin of a Linden turnaround when it opened in 2007 under the previous mayor, Mike Coleman. Part of the Four Corners project that also includes offices for the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority and a Central Ohio Transit Authority center, the “Clarence D. Lumpkin Point of Pride” building (named for the longtime community activist known as “the mayor of Linden”) didn't deliver on that promise over the past decade. Its owner, the Greater Linden Development Corp., struggled to fill vacancies and make mortgage payments and sold the building in 2016 for $1.9 million to Columbus Next Generation Development Corp., the city's development arm, before going out of business the following year.

So why will this latest effort be different than the failed or unexecuted plans and programs of the past? “I can't speak to the commitment level before, but I can speak to our commitment level,” Williams-Scott says. “I know the mayor is committed and so is the business community, and I think the time is now.”

“I know we are going to improve the quality of life and increase levels of prosperity and financial security in these neighborhoods, but it's going to take the leadership of the residents, the business owners, the service providers in those communities,” Ginther says. “City Hall cannot do this alone and cannot drive this process. It has to be a partnership with neighborhood and community leaders.”

Williams-Scott, Ginther says, is the right person to build those grassroots relationships, block by city block. He praises her inclusive leadership style and contacts in the city from her past experiences working in the mayor's office, the Columbus Community Relations Commission, the Columbus Department of Development and Franklin County. “She really has her finger on the pulse of the residents of Columbus,” Ginther says.

The Making of a Public Servant

A Cleveland area native, Williams-Scott came to Columbus to attend Ohio State University. She excelled at science and expected to go into medicine, but a college job at a nursing home changed her plans. “I realized that one-to-one patient contact was not for me because I got too emotionally involved,” she says.

After graduating with a degree in medical communications, Williams-Scott worked as a communications staffer for the American Heart Association in Columbus. That job led to a position with the United Way of Central Ohio, a life-changing experience. “I don't think anybody goes to a nonprofit to get rich,” she says, “but you meet a lot of really interesting people, and I think the big thing for me—and this is probably what started me on my path in public service—was meeting the folks that had been helped by United Way agencies and hearing their stories and hearing how an agency had helped them. … It really helped me to understand that the work we did made a difference.”

At the United Way, Williams-Scott found a mentor in Brian Gallagher, the former CEO of the central Ohio chapter who now leads the worldwide organization. With Gallagher's encouragement, Williams-Scott helped start diversity initiatives such as the Key Club, a leadership-giving affinity group for African-Americans, and take the United Way into neighborhoods at the grassroots level with mini-grant programs.

Through her work on the United Ways' Race Relations Vision Council, she was recruited to serve as an assistant director for the Columbus Community Relations Commission, which promotes racial harmony and investigates discriminatory practices in the city. From there, she took on increasingly more challenging assignments at City Hall. She built a strong network of neighborhood contacts as a community affairs official for Ginther's predecessor, Coleman, and helped found Impact Community Action in 2008 following the financial collapse of its predecessor, the Columbus Metropolitan Area Community Action Organization, better known as CMACAO.

“I remember our first meeting,” recalls Williams-Scott, referring to the task force created after CMACAO's disintegration. “We're sitting in the conference room, and the mayor says, ‘This is going to be tough work, and I know it's going to take about 90 days, but we're going to get this done.' It actually took three years.”

Williams-Scott loved her City Hall work, but it did demand a lot of evenings and weekends. She left City Hall in 2012 for a job as an assistant director at Franklin County Jobs and Family Services, more traditional employment that allowed her to attend all her son's high school track meets and football games. But she missed her community work, and after three years at Jobs and Family Services, she began running a $17 million community grant program at the county that put her knee-deep in neighborhood projects again. “It gave me the opportunity to get back into that community work,” she says.

Around this same time, Ginther was campaigning for mayor after eight years on City Council, including four as its president. “What really became evident is that we wanted to bring to bear a focus and resources that we had placed in certain neighborhoods or in Downtown to work for other neighborhoods throughout the community,” he says.

Soon after he took office in 2016, Ginther announced his plans to focus on improving the conditions in some of the city's most distressed and vulnerable areas, starting with Linden, the 11-square-mile northeast side neighborhood that's been plagued by crime, blight, drugs, population loss and disinvestment for nearly 40 years. To this end, he proposed the new Department of Neighborhoods, an idea he began considering while on City Council and was fortified during his time on the campaign trail.

“Right now, two-thirds of this community are doing well, in some cases better than ever before, but a third of our neighbors really haven't shared in the growth and success of Columbus since the Great Recession,” Ginther says. “So really having a single point of contact, a one-stop shop—but also someone to keep me and the city government laser-focused on these neighborhoods, particularly neighborhoods that have been left out of that success story—that came through loud and clear on Council and during the campaign for mayor and has been reinforced every day I've served as mayor,” Ginther says.

The new neighborhoods job requires strong listening skills and the ability to bring diverse interests and perspectives to the table, Ginther says. Williams-Scott has those talents, Ginther says, plus a deep knowledge of city government. “Because she's worked in different departments and the mayor's office, Carla knows how city government works and how to get resources for neighborhoods that somebody without her experience and background and relationships might not,” he says.

Ginther knew Williams-Scott from her time at City Hall and approached her about leading the new department. “I was humbled and honored and excited all at the same time,” she says. “I'm sitting there as they're explaining to me what this department's going to do. I'm like, ‘That's everything I've done. This is my dream job.' ”

“We're Not Rats”

Like lots of people in Linden, De Lena Scales was skeptical of the city's latest turnaround plan for the neighborhood. The 42-year-old Linden McKinley graduate has spent almost her entire life in Linden and remains devoted to the neighborhood, serving as the chair of the South Linden Area Commission and working as the program manager of neighborhood intervention for St. Stephen Community House on East 17th Avenue. As the neighborhood has declined, she and other Linden residents have participated in plenty of studies that haven't gone anywhere. “We're tired of being researched,” she says. “We're not rats.”

Williams-Scott promised Scales and other Linden leaders this time will be different, pointing out how this initiative comes with financial backing, unlike other ones. And though the city has spent money before in Linden with high-profile projects like the Four Corners redevelopment, city officials say the support this time around is broader—from both the business community and the city. Though the Department of Neighborhoods remains one of the smaller departments at City Hall, its funding has gone up dramatically, from $4.7 million in 2017 to $7 million this year (a nearly 50-percent increase).

The city doesn't seem to have a private anchor for its Linden turnaround plan, as it had with Nationwide Children's Hospital on the South Side or JPMorgan Chase with Weinland Park. But city officials are pleased with the backing they've received from business so far.

Ginther singles out Huntington Bank and its CEO, Steve Steinour, for opening a new office complex at State Route 161 and Cleveland Avenue just north of Linden and for committing $300 million in lending to low-to-moderate income neighborhoods in Columbus. Progressive activists have criticized Ginther and other city officials for giving the developers of Easton a 10-year, 100-percent tax cut on new residential properties. But as part of that deal, the city secured $4.25 million to invest in public infrastructure in Linden. The Easton developers also are supporting the Linden master plan, developed in conjunction with the Neighborhood Design Center, and providing in-kind real-estate consulting and planning services to the city's Linden initiative. “I envision for Linden and the Hilltop [the other revitalization priority for the city] that it may not be one champion, but it may be a group of organizations that come together to champion that cause,” Williams-Scott says.

Williams-Scott says the business community seems to recognize the importance of turning around neighborhoods such as Linden and the Hilltop. “Strong neighborhoods are the backbone of any community, and you have to work with the people in the neighborhoods to get the people stronger, to get the people whole, to help them to get to where they need to be to make the neighborhood strong,” she says. “Those folks are the employees that these businesses are going to need to fill their workforces.”

Despite her initial doubts, Scales is now a believer in the city's efforts. In particular, she's impressed with Williams-Scott's dedication, commitment and openness. Scales was pleased to run into Williams-Scott at the weekly Jazz in the Park concert series hosted by the South Linden Area Commission at Maloney Park over the summer. “That's not something that she has to do on a Saturday at 5 o'clock, but that's something she has done—and I dearly believe because she cares about not just her work but the people her work impacts,” Scales says.

Yet Scales considers herself “low-hanging fruit,” and it's going to be more challenging to win over the other doubters in Linden. “There are a lot of people who still have a lot of skepticism,” she says. “There's going to have to be some visual changes, some tangible changes, before you change the mindset of some residents in Linden.”

Williams-Scott remains hopeful that she can do that, though she asks for patience. “I'm excited about where this can go,” she says. “I think when we have community meetings with residents, I tell them you've got to be in it for the long haul because it's not going to happen overnight, but I do think there are opportunities, where we can have some small successes along the way to keep people engaged.”

Dave Ghose is the editor.

Photos by Rob Hardin

Q&A:

What was your childhood like?

It was pretty typical. I went to Catholic school for 12 years, a lot of school activities. I was an ice skater. I took ice skating lessons, and we went ice skating every Saturday. I loved it. ... My sister, my cousin, and I, we were at the ice rink every weekend.

What concerns have residents shared with you since you started at the Department of Neighborhoods?

It depends on what area of town you're in. In a lot of our communities, it's drugs. It's the opiates. It's how that's tearing apart families. It's needles in the street. It's people that are addicted to drugs, that have challenges, that maybe don't take care of their property or don't take care of their kids or all the things that come with those kinds of things. There's a lot of that. But even though with all that going on, you still have people in neighborhoods that want to figure out how they can help those folks, which to me goes back to the Columbus Way. It says a lot about who we are as a community. We know we have a problem, but it belongs to all of us.

Why is it important to have the Department of Neighborhoods in Linden?

It's important for us to be in a neighborhood, and this was a good fit, especially with Linden being one of our priority neighborhoods and starting the planning process in Linden. My staff and I hear a lot of folks working with the area commissions: “Well, why not our neighborhood?” What I always share with people is it's not a situation where if this community's getting, you must be losing out. It's just that one community may need more than the other or it may need different things.

What's the status of the Linden master plan?

We're about a year in. We should have a draft plan by the end of this summer, and then a final plan sometime in the fall. … I just keep telling folks, “Ten years from now, when you come to Linden, you're going to be like ‘Wow, I remember what Linden looked like in 2018.' ”