“Today has been a real pleasure,” said Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia President Patrick Harker.
Harker and a team of colleagues had spent their Tuesday afternoon learning about the ongoing impact in Lancaster of Reinventing Our Communities, or ROC, a program developed by the Philadelphia Fed to promote racial equity and expand economic opportunity for underserved communities.
To date, 28 communities in 15 states have taken part in ROC. Lancaster was part of the second cohort, launched in 2021 around the goal of rebuilding equitably after the pandemic.
On Tuesday, Harker pronounced the local ROC “very, very successful.”
“I have been incredibly impressed by what they’ve accomplished,” he said, “and moreover, what they’re going to accomplish.”
Three minority-owned businesses, plus representatives from eight nonprofits and city government initially formed Lancaster’s ROC membership. (United Way of Lancaster County was a founding member but is not currently active. There have been other shifts in membership as well.)
Over 10 months, they went through racial equity training and convened a series of community conversations with businesses and the public at large on “Centering BIPOC and Underrepresented Business Voices.”
Using that input, they developed a strategic plan, with action items devoted to three goals: improving minority business owners’ access to capital; improving their access to other resources such as consulting and professional services; and to creating a marketing strategy to promote their companies.
The initiative, now operating on its own, has undergone a modest rebranding, with ROC now standing for “Reimagining Our Community.”
Key nonprofit members include the Lancaster County Community Foundation, Lancaster City Alliance, Assets and the Lancaster Chamber.
Alma Felix, who oversees the ROC as program officer for the community foundation, was one of the local stakeholders welcoming the Fed delegation.
“It’s really great that they were able to come out and see the work that we’re doing so far,” she said.
Olé Hongvanthong and his wife, Heidi Castillo, own PhotOlé Photography, one of the local ROC’s founding members. Hongvanthong said the experience has been invaluable.
It provided the opportunity to take charge and “be the voice of our own community,” he said. “It gave us the tools to do the work.”
Putting ideas into practice
The ROC has been actively implementing its strategic plan. To improve access to capital, it launched a loan program, seeded with funding from Lancaster County Community Foundation and managed by Assets. Clients can borrow up to $10,000 at 1% interest and receive a grant match of 30%, or up to $3,000.
To date, Assets has approved nine ROC loans totaling $85,500 with $25,650 in accompanying grants, said Jaime Arroyo, Assets’ CEO. (Arroyo also serves on City Council.) Funding for the match comes from the Pennsylvania Community Development Finance Institution Network’s small business growth fund.
To improve networking and access to resources, the ROC underwrote Assets’ hiring of a community engagement coordinator, Chelsea Christmas, with the community foundation funding her salary for the first year.
The ROC’s newest initiative, a giving circle, will be unveiled at a launch party this evening. Community members will be invited to donate to a philanthropic fund at the community foundation. The ROC will allocate the money to strengthen community support systems and organizations that serve minority business owners.
On Tuesday, the Fed delegation toured Southern Market Center, took part in a roundtable discussion, then visited two local businesses: Martine Cajas’ House of Clarendon, which received a ROC loan; and PhotOlé Photography, Hongvanthong’s and Castillo’s business.
The two have devoted some of their energy to making PhotOlé Photography an incubator for other creative professionals, hosting exhibitions and providing shared space and mentoring. Libby Ethridge, a self-taught artist and founder of Wild Rice Co., told the Fed delegation that Hongvanthong’s and Castillo’s support changed the trajectory of her career, boosting her confidence and teaching her, a newcomer to the field, the importance of cultivating the right kind of branding and exposure.
This incubator/mentor model is a tangible, practical way for businesses and professionals to support local artists, Ethridge said. She told Harker she thinks it could work in communities of any size and would be “extremely beneficial.”
While the Fed’s intensive engagement with the Lancaster ROC ended in summer 2022, there are ongoing “touch points,” Felix said. In June, ROC members were able to attend the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s policy summit, and there are plans to meet and exchange ideas with ROC cohorts from other communities.
It’s important that the Fed is recognizing Lancaster’s work she said, adding that the exposure “can encourage other communities to do the same.”