Originally published in the West Volusia Beason on March 20, 2019.
There is no such thing as a typical day at the Spring Hill Resource Center. The modest building at 910 S. Adelle Ave. in DeLand is many things to many people: a notary, a food bank, a résumé coach, a diabetes tester, a credit coach, a job hunter, a computer lab, a place to learn how to understand your water bill, and a place to sit and stay out of trouble.
Once a temporary police substation — which made many neighbors feel targeted as criminals — the Resource Center stands now as a nexus of information, a key to understanding the byzantine world of public services.
It offers a literal lifeline to the tangled web of public programs intended to serve those in need.
In February, the shortest month of the year, the Resource Center provided 882 people with some 2,026 services. In one five-day week, Monday through Friday, more than 200 people came in for one of 100-plus services that are provided there. The center is open to anyone who needs it, which includes residents of cities other than DeLand, like Deltona and Orange City.
The Resource Center is behind much-loved Spring Hill events, like the Mayor’s Backpack Giveaway before the beginning of school, the TURN Festival in September, which unites neighborhood and nonprofit organizations for a day of celebration, and the Christmas toy drive, among others. But the heart of the Resource Center is in meeting everyday needs, from explaining paperwork to simply providing a friendly face.
“We give a little TLC. A meal, encouragement, that’s just as important,” Administrative Assistant Wanda Raulerson said.
Some residents struggled to put into words what the center has done for them — and what life would be like without it.
“I’d be lost,” Donna Rene’e Bess said. “I wouldn’t know what to do.”
The 1,100-square-foot building would just be a building if it weren’t for the people inside, members of the community said.
Spearheaded by Shilretha Dixon with assistance by Raulerson, the Resource Center oversees a network of volunteers, and cares for people’s most sensitive information. Daily, the Resource Center makes a positive difference in clients’ lives.
“It’s my calling; I truly believe that,” Dixon said. “If God didn’t want me to be right where I am, I wouldn’t be here. It’s my passion.”
“I come up here to get my paperwork down, assistance, all the things I didn’t know about,” Diana Layne said. “You can be sure it’ll get done. Some places you call, and they say they’re going to send it in, and you find out they never did it. Here you know they’ll do it. You can go home and rest easy.”
Accordingly, the Resource Center is one of the most important and successful creations of the decades long attempt to lift up poverty-stricken areas of Spring Hill.
The small building at 910 S. Adelle Ave. was never intended to be the center’s permanent home and, finally, after 13 years, the City of DeLand and the County of Volusia have matched funds to build an improved 3,000-square-foot facility with more than twice the space, named in honor of former state legislator and former Volusia County Council Member Joyce Cusack.
Officials will break ground for the Joyce M. Cusack Spring Hill Resource Center in late April on West Mathis Street — a short distance from the existing center.
But the good news is clouded by the threat of a funding shortfall. The cost of operating the Spring Hill Resource Center at its new location was budgeted before the city got wind of an unexpected property-tax exemption for the Woodland Towers retirement community.
The result is a $97,000 shortfall in the Spring Hill Community Redevelopment Agency budget.
That fund will now plummet from a projected $147,000 income this year to $50,000 — just when its revenue had started to grow along with property values.
DeLand was depending on that fund to pay for operations at the new Resource Center.
Administrator Dixon remains confident.
“I would like the new Resource Center to set the precedent for the new Spring Hill,” she said.
Positivity is always part of the message, Dixon added. She pointed to a sign displaying the Spring Hill motto: A New Horizon on the Hill.
What are some of the services the Spring Hill Resource Center offers?
Jordan Joseph is a junior in accounting at Stetson University, and a certified résumé coach. Working through Stetson’s Career Services program, he volunteers at the Spring Hill Resource Center several times a month — coaching clients and editing and printing their résumés.
On a recent day, a woman needed to print her résumé. She didn’t have time to wait for Joseph to edit the document, which can take up to half an hour. He offered to email a professionally formatted version to her.
“I originally came to make my hours to become a certified résumé coach,” Joseph said. “Now I just come to volunteer.”
Students from Stetson University come to the center four times a week to provide the free service. The Career Services program is one of several Stetson has in partnership with the Resource Center.
Strict parameters are required to qualify for cash assistance, offered by Florida’s Department of Children and Families. To receive a little more than $200 a month for a child, the applicant’s income must be no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
In addition, the DCF requires the child’s adult caregiver to work at least 82 hours of community service a month.
To qualify for cash assistance to help her raise her young children, Megan Cooper does her hours at the Resource Center.
“I’d love to do it as a job,” Cooper said. “They know me here, and they like me.”
Cooper is one of several who choose to fulfill their community-service hours at the Resource Center.
The Resource Center also hosts other community-outreach programs, like the ones offered by the Mid-Florida Housing Partnership. On a recent Saturday, some two dozen people arrived at the center before 9 a.m. for a four-hour credit workshop. Among them were Linda J. Strong, Luz Elena Caro and Caro’s husband, Roberto Gonzalez.
Like others attending, the trio hoped to find help from the multi-class program to improve their credit scores so they can qualify for a mortgage, an essential step to buying a home.
“Absolutely, the Resource Center has been a big help,” Caro said. “That’s how we found out about this.”
Strong has taken advantage of other offerings at the Resource Center.
“I’ve been coming to the Resource Center for some years,” she said. “You know, it’s not about the color of your skin — it is for everybody.”
Many people who have used the Resource Center later become volunteers and donors. One of them is Alicia Gonzalez. The help she received at the Resource Center when she first moved to Central Florida prompted her to give back, she said.
“Through the years, I’ve come for everything: to use the computer, to find out about programs,” Gonzalez said. “Now I come to volunteer, and so does my daughter.”
She complimented the staff.
“Ms. Dixon has her thumb on the command center. The things she does here… I’ve never seen something so amazing,” Gonzalez said.
Originally published in the West Volusia Beacon on February 27, 2019.
The story of governmental attempts to help Spring Hill is one of big dreams that don’t come true, of funding that dries up, of plans drawn and never seen through.
The reasons are complicated, vast, and sometimes too hazy in memory to pinpoint.
Among those involved is Gerald Chester, president and CEO of the nonprofit Central Florida Community Development Corporation Inc., headquartered in Daytona Beach.
Chester’s story in Spring Hill stretches back to the early 2000s, a time of great hope in the community for uplifting the consistently poverty-stricken area of DeLand.
Between the early 2000s and 2012, according to city officials, Chester’s company, the CFCDC, was under contract with Volusia County and the City of DeLand to administer redevelopment in Spring Hill.
With Chester at the helm, the Spring Hill Resource Center was created. Today, that center is a popular and well-used community asset. It also is currently facing a crisis in funding because of the unexpected loss of tax revenue from a large retirement center.
Chester had plans to fund the Resource Center without depending solely on property taxes. Those plans were never realized.
Dreams of change
For at least seven years, a 10,800-square-foot commercial building that used to be a nightclub has stood vacant on the southwest corner of Adelle and Mathis avenues, in what could be the commercial heart of Spring Hill.
The property is one of eight purchased by companies run by Gerald Chester, mostly during the time his nonprofit organization was contracted by the City of DeLand to help redevelop Spring Hill.
It was Chester’s vision, he said, to put the properties to work creating income to help pay to run the Spring Hill Resource Center. But Chester’s contracts with the City of DeLand ended in 2012. His organizations still own the properties.
Before Chester’s organization bought 918 S. Adelle Ave. for $111,000 in 2008, the building was a popular, if sometimes controversial, nightclub.
“It was a nuisance,” Chester said.
Purchasing the building was part of the CFCDC’s plan to buy up “nuisance” properties and turn them into economy-boosters.
The organization that ended up with the deed on the former nightclub was a for-profit called Central Florida Community & Economic Development LLC, or CFCED. The CFCED is also owned and operated by Chester.
“The LLC is used for commercial property and the nonprofit, residential,” Chester told The Beacon. “Our overall strategy is to maintain our viability — the riskier properties we don’t touch with a nonprofit.”
Chester’s organization made a stab at finding a new owner with a new business plan for the building, and had a prospect in 2016. A little more than two years later, according to court records, the CFCED and that prospective new owner are engaged in a civil lawsuit, in which the prospective new owner claims the CFCED used his $10,000 deposit to pay property taxes and buy a used truck, and wouldn’t return the money after plans for a sports bar fell apart.
The property remains vacant.
Good has come from the property purchases, too. Of the eight properties Chester’s organizations own in Spring Hill, five are affordable-housing rentals, offered at discount rates to low-income residents.
For a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home, one family pays $650 a month, a massive help to the mother of two who lives there.
“I said ‘Thank you, God,’” the mom told The Beacon.
Volusia County records show that neither the CFCDC nor the CFCED has paid any of the assessments owed on the eight Spring Hill properties since at least 2016 — and, in one case, since 2011.
Most of the money owed is for non-ad valorem assessments, such as those for stormwater, garbage pickup and streetlights, which are not subject to tax exemptions.
Seven of the eight properties are listed by the county as tax-exempt. The vacant lot at 1124 S. Thompson Ave. is the exception. County records show taxes were last paid on that parcel in 2009, the year the property was transferred from Volusia County to Chester’s CFCDC.
The deed on the vacant lot has a restriction: The property is to be used for permanent affordable housing. If not, according to the deed, ownership transfers back to the county.
The lot remains vacant.
Tax exemptions on the other seven parcels may be a problem.
In two cases, the properties are owned by Chester’s for-profit corporation, which wouldn’t qualify for the exemption.
Volusia County Property Appraiser Larry Bartlett said his office made an error.
“We gave them the exemption by mistake,” Bartlett said. “It was a clerical error on our part.”
Because of the similarity of the names of the two companies, the property appraiser never noticed the parcel had been sold to a for-profit corporation.
“Now we noticed it, we’re going to take the exemption away,” Bartlett said.
County records show a full ad valorem tax exemption for the property, which is valued at $81,621. The non-ad valorem assessments were last paid in 2015, the record shows.
There’s another problem — the tax exemptions for the six properties owned by Chester’s nonprofit are contingent upon its 501(c)(3) status. That 501(c)(3) status has been revoked by the federal government.
Loss of federal exemption
In late 2010, the CFCDC was sued by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for failing to register as a charitable organization.
What Chester described as an administrative error would have a ripple effect: Caught in litigation with the state for two years, the CFCDC was unable to produce the certification necessary to file a tax return with the IRS, a source told The Beacon.
The IRS investigated the CFCDC in 2011, according to Chester.
That investigation endangered the nonprofit’s 501(c)(3) status, a designation that is integral to the operations of a nonprofit. Without it, the corporation could no longer apply for grants or receive property- and income-tax exemptions.
Because grant-writing was one of the main functions the CFCDC was supposed to perform for the City of DeLand, in 2012 the nonprofit either withdrew from its contract with the city, according to Chester, or had its contract terminated, according to Assistant City Manager Michael Grebosz.
The CFCDC filed three years of back taxes in early 2012 and was eventually reinstated as a charitable organization by the state later that year, according to the organization’s tax returns.
Three years later, however, the IRS revoked the CFCDC’s 501(c)(3) in May 2015, for failing to file taxes three years in a row.
That should have triggered a revocation of the organization’s property-tax exemption. But first, the company would have had to inform the county.
“As far as I know, we don’t have a system in place to check if 501(c)(3) things are unrevoked,” Property Appraiser Bartlett told The Beacon. “If we made mistakes, we’ll fix them, but if someone withheld something we should have known about, we will hold them accountable.”
As far the revocation of the nonprofit’s tax-exempt status, Chester said that’s all about to be taken care of.
“We just submitted for that — we have to go into review. It was delayed from the government shutdown,” Chester said.
Even if the renewal goes through, it’ll cause a two-year gap for the CFCDC in its 501(c)(3) status. Chester doesn’t anticipate any trouble from that.
“No, it won’t cause a property-tax issue,” Chester said.
Chester still has big dreams. It’s just a matter of time and paperwork, he said, before he’s going to begin again working on redevelopment in Daytona Beach.
“Now it’s a waiting game, so we can be a gangbuster out there,” he said.
If Spring Hill wanted him back, he’d be willing, Chester said.
“I wouldn’t mind working with other organizations there trying to make it work. And you know, it takes time, it’s tiresome,” he said. “It’s hopeful if you get people who are committed good caregivers that can make some things happen.”
“Things aren’t hopeless,” he added.
Originally printed in the West Volusia Beacon on January 30, 2019
By the 1940s, in segregated DeLand, there were at least four operating black schools, and at least double that number of churches attended only by black people.
The DeLand Colored Hospital, a two-story building that was demolished in 1993, was in operation until 1948.
There was a sit-in in 1960 at F.W. Woolworth’s in Downtown DeLand, that ultimately led to the restaurant’s agreeing to serve black customers.
Volusia County Schools files show a massive wage disparity between black and white teachers until the 1940s, with white teachers being paid almost double. Black schools in the DeLand area were given secondhand materials and 75 percent less funding by the State of Florida.
Volusia County schools were also among the last to integrate, which was forced by court order in the 1969-70 school year.
Editor’s note: This is the beginning of our series of stories about Spring Hill and DeLand’s continuing struggle with racial disparities.
The history of African-Americans’ arrival in the United States is the history of slavery — of the forcible capture of black people from the African continent for lives of forced labor.
The origin of the traditionally African-American community of Spring Hill is rooted in slavery, as well.
In pre-Civil War Florida, citrus and timber plantations littered the state like so many ATMs. The houses and businesses we see now sit on land that once was orange groves, and citrus was good business.
Just a few miles from the present-day Spring Hill community, to the east, circa 1763-83, was the 20,000-acre Beresford plantation.
To the north, in what is now DeLeon Springs, was the large Starke plantation, circa 1851.
According to data from written and oral histories, these two plantations were likely the source of communities of freed slaves who ultimately settled in the DeLand area.
They didn’t all move to what we now call Spring Hill. It was one of at least five local historic black communities that emerged after the Civil War.
Other distinctive neighborhoods in DeLand whose residents were mostly African-Americans were Red City, the majority of which has by now been purchased by Stetson University, and Little Africa. Both of these neighborhoods surrounded what is now known as Painter’s Park, bisected by East Wisconsin Avenue.
There was also Dunn’s Bottom, at Garfield and Voorhis avenues, and Blackberry, Dug Out and Yamasee, also in DeLand.
“They all had their own little identity,” longtime resident and former City of DeLand Public Works Director Bo Davenport said.
Over time, as these communities began to fade into memory, “Spring Hill” became a catch-all description of DeLand’s African-American community.
In truth, Spring Hill is just one area — historically underserved and low on quality housing stock — where African-Americans settled in DeLand. Spring Hill is distinctive, however, because it developed mostly as a place where seasonal workers lived. Many of the houses were never intended to be long-term residences, and the endemic neglect has been hard to overcome.
The original Spring Hill — named for a natural spring near the corner of South Clara Avenue and Vermont Street — nestled against the boundaries of the City of DeLand.
Today, people define Spring Hill by many different sets of boundaries. One official set, however, was laid out when the City of DeLand and Volusia County jointly created a Community Redevelopment Agency in 2004, in an attempt to create a fund for public improvements in the neighborhood. Those boundaries are shown on the map accompanying this story.
A summary of the history of the area in the CRA master plan notes the small size and substandard conditions of many of Spring Hill’s houses. Many were built between the turn of the 20th century and the early 1950s, were undersized and weren’t connected to public water, sewage systems or electricity.
Over the years, including years when discrimination in housing and mortgage lending was legal, and people of color were welcome only in certain neighborhoods, those homes were sold to black residents.
“There’s a whole reason why blacks were steered to certain areas — because they were lower-value properties,” County Council Member and Realtor Barb Girtman said.
Longtime resident and businessman James E. Cusack talked about misconceptions about Spring Hill.
“People think of that area of Spring Hill, on [the south] side of West Beresford, as the total representation of the historic black community in the area,” Cusack said.
That just isn’t true, Cusack said.
Just two blocks away from the official boundary of the Spring Hill CRA is the historic J.W. Wright building, constructed in 1920.
Wright was one of the few black business owners at the turn of the century. In an address to the National Negro Business League in 1915, Wright, by then a successful citrus grower, explained that he had been able to buy his property for $300 after the devastating freeze in 1894, which decimated the citrus industry.
Wright, who had been a laborer for other growers, put his wages into buying his own land, becoming successful enough that he bought more property in DeLand — including a manufacturing plant on West Minnesota Avenue, and a lot at the corner of Voorhis and Clara avenues, where the large, two-story brick building named for him still sits.
The building, considered part of the nearby Yamasee neighborhood, once was home to a dentist office, beer garden, apartments and a grocery store.
It spawned its own neighborhood, known as Wright’s Corner.
“There were a lot of mom-and-pop shops. There was a black hotel, dentist, doctors, grocery store, service stations, restaurants and cafes. Wright’s Corner was really a hub,” Cusack said.
There was a theater next door to the Wright Building, and clubs, cafes and restaurants lined the street.
“My grandmother purchased a house on Adelle in the 1950s. At that time, Spring Hill was moving and shaking for the black community,” Girtman said. “Of course, my grandmother was more into religion than the juke joints down the road.”
Even then, at a time of bustling business in the black community, discrimination in lending, along with the historical disparity in wages between blacks and whites, and other damage from persistent racism, conspired to create separate and not equal standards of living.
Davenport said conditions now aren’t that different from the past. He sees some of his neighbors struggling at the bottom of the pay scale.
“It was always like how it is. They work, but they aren’t getting the wages to thrive,” Davenport said. “I had to work for 20 years so I could have just a little for myself.”
Fifty years after segregation, Spring Hill’s median annual household income, at $18,828, is 47 percent lower than the median household income of DeLand at-large, $39,902.
“The living conditions have improved, but the real change didn’t come. They still have to work two or three jobs to make things work,” Davenport said.
And what happened to the once-bustling center of commerce?
The reasons for its decline are myriad but not unfamiliar: the rise in illegal drug use in the 1980s and the subsequent crackdown that disproportionately affected minorities, the deaths of older residents whose children had moved on, and the prevalence of big-box stores like Walmart, which ran smaller businesses into the ground.
“There’s a lot of reason for a lack of wealth in the community … you can’t lay it in any one lap; it just is what it is,” Girtman said.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the 4-square-mile area identified as Spring Hill was considered a blighted community. Basic public utilities, like sewage systems, streetlights and road improvements, arrived in patchwork fashion. For example, some 100 streetlights, including replacements for those that were broken and never repaired, were installed in 1998 only after residents petitioned the county.
In 2004, the CRA was created to help address the problems, but three short years later, the Great Recession decimated its funding.
The recession had another effect — homes in Spring Hill and nearby were targeted by predatory lenders who offered easy access to cash. Once the bubble burst, those who had borrowed were deep underwater, and foreclosed homes were snapped up by investors who live all over the country.
The Volusia County Property Appraiser website shows multiple vacant homes in Spring Hill that are owned by investors in Delaware, Illinois and New Jersey, to name a few, who have no discernible ties to the area.
“There is a long history of why this happened. And history repeated itself in the recession,” Girtman said.
In some cases, she said, investors snapped up devalued properties and started renting them back to the former homeowners.
A generation later, rentals that had become homesteads reverted back to rentals.
“That was the reality for that community, and it’s not true for any other community nearby. We got what we got,” Girtman said. “That generation is used to making do.”
Although those in power have shown an interest in helping Spring Hill, little has been accomplished.
“In the better days of 2000-2007, there were a lot of plans and support, and now it’s 11 years later,” Girtman said.
Girtman, elected to the County Council in 2018 when she narrowly defeated a longtime incumbent, is hopeful that she and others will be able to make a difference by serving in political office.
Spring Hill deserves to share in the success that has brought nationwide publicity, tourism and economic prosperity to Downtown DeLand, Girtman said.
“A rising tide lifts all boats. And they’re a couple of blocks away, and are not able to enjoy or be a part of it,” she said.
Sections of the 100 and 200 blocks of West Voorhis Avenue are included in the Downtown DeLand CRA, which helped develop DeLand’s central business district.
But that doesn’t cover everyone in the community, according to Mary Allen, executive director of the African American Museum of the Arts, which is next door to the deteriorated Wright Building.
“The Downtown CRA stops at the Wright Building; it doesn’t include us,” Allen said.
She pointed to now-bustling Downtown DeLand.
“There’s lots of activity there, and we sit here,” she said.
Once again, plans for improving Spring Hill and the surrounding area are being made.
This year, a new community resource center will be built near Spring Hill Park, at the corner of Beresford and Adelle avenues. A community garden for residents was begun in 2017, with support from Stetson University, in the 500 block of South Delaware Avenue. Greater Union First Baptist Church bought the Wright Building in 2016, and hopes to restore it.
Girtman says all these actions are steps in the right direction.
“We’re sowing the seeds, and now we have to connect that all together,” Girtman said.
— This article draws upon myriad sources, including: history books, news articles, historical documents, oral histories and resident interviews. Thanks to the Spring Hill Community Resource Center, the West Volusia Historical Society, and members of the Spring Hill community.
Editor’s note: Our next story in this series will address how two governmental mechanisms — annexation, and the Community Redevelopment Agency concept — could help Spring Hill.