The two top executives at the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, the nonprofit driving a massive redevelopment project in southeastern San Diego, have left the organization.
Jennifer Vanica, the nonprofit’s president and CEO since its founding in 1995, and her husband Ron Cummings, its longtime chief operating officer, left abruptly last week.
It’s unclear whether they were fired or resigned, but the move is a shakeup for the 16-year-old organization that’s only been led by them. Under their leadership, Jacobs started by working mostly behind the scenes to improve the city’s poor southeastern neighborhoods. It eventually became a major developer and landowner now coordinating the community’s physical revitalization.
The nonprofit was founded by Los Angeles-based engineer and philanthropist Joseph Jacobs in 1995, with a self-imposed deadline of 2030 to develop residents who could lead the work the organization began.
Valerie Jacobs, chairwoman of the nonprofit’s board, said she would not discuss details about personnel decisions, but said the couple’s departure was in line with the nonprofit’s long-term goal to have a leadership team more closely reflecting the diverse community it serves. According to the nonprofit, about 90 percent of residents in the neighborhoods where it works — including Lincoln Park, Valencia Park and Chollas View — are ethnic minorities.
But nearly all the nonprofit’s senior managers are white, and its board members are all from the Jacobs family. Roque Barros, who the board named interim president, is Latino. He previously led efforts to build relationships with residents.
“I’m from the community, I’ve been here a very long time,” Barros said. “It is part of what we’ve been talking about transitioning our leadership. For us this is really an exciting moment, resident ownership of leadership change.”
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But even if his appointment aligns with the Jacobs Center’s long-term vision, Vanica and Cummings’ departure last week came as a surprise to residents and officials who have worked with the Jacobs Center. The nonprofit is only in the early phases of developing its decades-long plan to hand management and assets over to homegrown leaders. There was no public announcement or formal farewell. Residents found out by word of mouth.
Vanica was the public face of the organization, traveling the country to raise money and promoting Jacobs’ innovative model of community development, while Cummings structured the organization internally and handled its day-to-day operations. Her annual salary was $245,834, according to tax filings; his was $198,053. Neither of them could be immediately reached at their home.
The Jacobs Center was founded to foster cooperation between existing nonprofits that were already working in southeastern San Diego’s neighborhoods in the mid-1990s. At the time, the center was experimenting with a relatively new approach to neighborhood philanthropy called “place-based community development,” in which a nonprofit selects a community and makes a long-term commitment to improving it by basing itself there, interacting with residents and developing an intimate understanding of the community’s needs.
Employees knocked on doors, hosted meetings and asked residents to outline their priorities. In earlier interviews, Barros and Vanica both said that the neighborhood’s physical deterioration and lack of private development were a recurring concern among residents.
The Jacobs Center soon realized it could be a catalyst for the community’s economic rebirth and took on the role of developer. It started buying up land and achieved its first major redevelopment success when it turned a site with a festering industrial warehouse into a shopping center, Market Creek Plaza, featuring small businesses and the community’s first major grocery store in decades. Its assets total about $144 million, tax records show.
The nonprofit, which currently owns about 60 acres, has an ambitious plan to redevelop much of the area surrounding the intersection of Euclid Avenue and Market Street. Several projects are in the works, including plans for a Walmart, a Walgreens and affordable apartments. It has gotten the City Council to rezone large swaths of land to make the plans possible. But the recession has delayed its progress.
“They’ve been frustrated, but everyone’s frustrated,” said Nancy Lytle, vice president of projects and development for the area’s redevelopment agency, the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., which rents office space from the Jacobs Center. “There is a lot of vacant land that is ready and waiting for development.”
In the decade-and-a-half since it arrived in southeastern San Diego, the nonprofit has attracted both adoration and criticism from local residents. Many people, frustrated by the community’s decades-long economic decline, view the Jacobs Center as a savior of sorts — a nonprofit that’s committed to investing where private developers won’t.
It’s also attracted criticism and skepticism. Its town-hall style meetings are usually upbeat community dinners where executives seek input from residents and update them on the status of ongoing development projects. But they are occasionally punctuated by the railing invective of a few longtime residents who accuse the nonprofit of being an outsider, even 16 years later.
Jacobs, the board chairwoman, said it was too early to tell whether Barros would be named as Vanica’s permanent replacement, but that he was welcome to apply. Nor could she guarantee that person would be from southeastern San Diego.
“I can’t promise that,” she said, “But believe me, we’re going to look there first.”
Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?
Contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619.325.0528.
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