CLEVELAND, Ohio – A push to bring new residents and businesses to an area dubbed the International Village on Cleveland’s West Side is winning over financial backers as it strives to grow from a pilot project into something more permanent.

The Cleveland Foundation recently approved a $180,000 grant for the initiative, an attempt to shore up a several-block area surrounding Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy on West 46th Street. The unusual public school, which offers pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, serves as an English-immersion program for nearly 1,000 children of immigrants, refugees and migrants from U.S. territories.

The strategy for the International Village, formerly called the Dream Neighborhood, involves filling empty homes with some of those new arrivals who need places to live.

Boosters also are working with immigrants who want to establish businesses in the neighborhood, such as an African market that recently opened at Clark Avenue and West 47th Street. And they’re trying to build a rapport between new arrivals and existing residents, who have been using the International Village name for years as the moniker for a neighborhood block club.

The Cleveland Foundation grant will flow to Global Cleveland, a nonprofit group that is shepherding the International Village initiative.

Broadly, the funding could help Global Cleveland and the Metro West Community Development Office, another partner, bring more attention to the project, attract piggyback supporters, revive vacant storefronts along Clark, take on additional housing investments and assist families working their way toward U.S. citizenship.

“The idea is to use year one to make this a sustainable effort for years two, three, four, and to create a dynamic where people realize that it’s the international newcomers helping the neighborhood become even stronger,” said Joe Cimperman, Global Cleveland’s president and a former councilman who, until early 2016, represented downtown and areas to the west.

“What happens to a neighborhood where there has been disinvestment when you have people moving in from outside of the region, outside of the state? Where development doesn’t mean displacement?” he asked. “The anchors are the houses that have been paid off over 40 years. The vacant houses that we’re talking about, nobody is living there now.”

In January, Tony Bango became the International Village’s sole full-time staff member – its director – after Metro West received a capacity-building grant from Enterprise, a nonprofit organization focused on affordable housing and community development.

“My job is to figure out if somebody wants to be part of what we’re doing,” said Bango, who previously oversaw housing redevelopment programs in several West Side neighborhoods and started working on the International Village effort in a less formal capacity two years ago.

By his count, a few dozen vacant and condemned houses within a half-mile of Thomas Jefferson have been demolished since early 2015. There are 135 vacant and abandoned homes in that area now, roughly 40 of them condemned.

Six empty homes have been renovated, and twice that number of rehabilitations are in progress. The investors include the Geis Foundation, smaller-scale developers and rehabbers and residents, including a Puerto Rican family that bought and fixed up a house to live in. Most of the properties are being rented out, not sold.

Cleveland Housing Network is competing to win federal low-income housing tax credits, awarded by the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, to build homes on 22 of the 300-plus vacant lots in the neighborhood. If built, the houses will be part of a lease-purchase program that puts low-income families on a 15-year path to ownership.

Bango believes there’s ample space within walking distance of Thomas Jefferson to house families arriving in Northeast Ohio from other countries. He and Cimperman pointed to enrollment at the school, which started the academic year in August with 658 students and is wrapping up with 955. Students speak more than 30 languages.

Younger children are limited to spending two years at the school and then must transfer elsewhere. High-school students can choose to stay longer.

Cimperman views the school as an anchor, one that will help the city cultivate a new crop of residents and entrepreneurs at a time when the growth of Cuyahoga County’s foreign-born community is a bright spot amid broader population losses.

“There’s nobody sprinkling fairy dust here, and we’re in an environment right now that’s extremely turbulent when it comes to welcoming newcomers,” he said. “But immigrants mean economic reinvestment in communities. And that has been proven in city after city after city.”

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