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Residents and nonprofit leaders in City Heights are eyeing a hefty federal grant to promote community revitalization by investing in child achievement and strong families.

But City Heights faces an interesting question: Should the community seek even more philanthropic investment than it already has, and can it handle it?

The Obama Administration’s proposed Promise Neighborhoods initiative would target 20 communities nationwide plagued by poverty, crime and low student achievement. It would bring together local residents, agencies and nonprofits to promote child development by creating a comprehensive network of services all working toward child success. The long-term grant could provide up to $10 million a year.

In 2008, residents and organizations mobilized with force in the aftermath of the community’s selection by the California Endowment as one of a handful of hosts for the endowment’s 10-year, multi-million-dollar initiative targeting health, Building Healthy Communities.

The challenge they have to contemplate now is whether they are ready to take on a second layer of significant investment — with its own mandates — and how it might shift their approach to community revitalization.

In some ways, residents believe, City Heights is ideally situated to compete for the federal grant. It has San Diego’s largest network of community-based nonprofits tackling issues from affordable housing to gang violence to financial literacy.

“City Heights has arisen as a very strong potential community,” said Diana Ross, collaborative director of the Mid City Community Advocacy Network, which supports organizations in the area. “We have more resources, and City Heights is a community where there’s a lot of investment.”

But there are also standing questions about whether the community, which already enjoys significant philanthropic investment, is equipped to handle even more. On Tuesday, more than 100 community residents and nonprofit leaders met at the City Heights Wellness Center to learn about the federal initiative and begin discussing whether City Heights was ready for it.

Some worry that another large project could strain organizations’ ability to handle all the requirements from different funders.

“The Building Healthy Communities initiative is already draining citizen capacity,” said Jim Varnadore, chair of the City Heights Area Planning Committee. “If we try to take on a second major initiative that involves our citizens, we have to look at our organizational capacity.”

The dilemma hints at the enviable position that City Heights occupies among San Diego’s needy neighborhoods. But it also suggests the challenges that arise when a community like City Heights receives as much philanthropic attention as it has.

City Heights has become a poster child of community development in Southern California. In the mid-90s, philanthropist Sol Price committed to funding long-term renewal and social service efforts in the community. His foundation remains the largest funder of neighborhood revitalization there, but there are many others.

Last year, Mid City CAN organized more than 1,500 residents and hundreds of organizations to implement the healthy communities initiative, now in its second year. That existing structure of residents and organizations, some believe, makes City Heights a strong contender for the federal grant.

“That’s a strength they can point to,” said Steve Eldred, the California Endowment’s senior San Diego program officer. “Committed investment from a couple of foundations and a planning process that’s already started and can be adapted will make it more competitive.”

The influx of philanthropic dollars has created something of snowball effect in the community, a place where the networks of nonprofits that were made possible by previous charitable investment have made the community more appealing to potential new investors.

Philanthropists see City Heights, where existing organization and collaboration is well established, as more likely to succeed in achieving returns on investment.

Many foundations, including the California Endowment, have shifted their grantmaking strategies, partly in response to the economic recession. In the past they funded a wide range of organizations, but have moved toward supporting more focused, local initiatives. As a result of the shift, some communities that were previously funded have lost out.

Competition for large grants often also relies on a community’s ability to raise matching funds. Existing philanthropic presence in a community makes it more likely to guarantee those funds will be available, giving places like City Heights a further boost.

“People want to be associated with success stories,” said Jorge Riquleme, director of the Bayside Community Center in Linda Vista. “There’s nothing wrong with that. The question is, do you reach a point of saturation?”

That’s what City Heights is trying to gauge. Nonprofit leaders believe the California Endowment and Obama initiatives would not be incompatible.

“The indicators expected out of the federal initiatives and the goals for the California Endowment initiative are not too different,” said Ross, the Mid City CAN director.

Eldred of the California Endowment said adding the federal initiative on top of the existing Healthy Communities program in City Heights would require a reexamination of the community’s approach to ensure it could satisfy the mandates of both.

“If the community wants to pursue it, we’d be very happy to be as flexible as we can to accommodate bringing the two efforts together,” he said. “But only if they think this is the right strategy at the same time.”

The idea is this: define a neighborhood and set goals for its children, like good physical and mental health, graduation from high school and college, and good jobs for their parents so children are supported into successful adulthood. Then bring together a cross-section of the community — residents, government agencies, and organizations with different expertise — to provide a range of services that no single organization could provide on its own.

If all the organizations understand that they are part of a collaborative long term effort — as opposed to tackling narrow focuses like education or nutrition — children are less likely to fall through the cracks as they grow.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

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