Introducing the Apex Project: Higher Ed’s Guide to Inclusive Economic Development

Alex Flachsbart
7 min readSep 21, 2021

Opportunity Alabama is proud to announce the release of The Apex Project, an all-in-one tool designed to create stronger, more resilient, and more community-engaged higher educational institutions in Alabama — and across the U.S. This work, made possible through a grant from the Lumina Foundation, demystifies two interrelated worlds — community engagement and project finance — and shows how understanding both can lead to better outcomes on and off campus.

If you are a higher ed institution that wants to foster economic activity on your campus or in your community — AND you want to do so in an equitable fashion — then you’ve come to the right place!

Who Needs to Read This? We built the Apex Project for a wide audience. Though the content was written for higher ed, we believe the Project will be just as helpful for community members, development finance professionals, foundations, impact investors, and others looking to engage with their local institutions. If you see yourself in the list below, read on, because there’s something in the Apex Project for you!

  • I want to build a new building (or rehab an existing one), on or off campus. I keep hearing about all these financing programs (like tax credits or Opportunity Zones) and “capital stacking.” What does all this mean, and how can it help me get my deal done?
  • I see the community around my institution struggling, and I want to play a role in helping to support community revitalization work. Maybe it’s a development, maybe it’s capital, maybe it’s programming — where do I start?
  • I see the community around me gentrifying rapidly, and I worry about my institution’s role in the process. What strategies can I use to help my community improve while building local wealth?
  • I want my institution to have a deeper relationship with my surrounding community — identify issues, measure impact, etc. What are some tangible ways I can do it, and what are some examples of other institutions that have?
  • I’m a local leader working with an institution and want to propose specific strategies for them to engage in any of the work described above. How do I propose those strategies, and give concrete examples of other institutions currently doing this work?
  • I’m a financial institution and want to understand how I can work with higher educational institutions to get projects done. What can I do?

Why Is This Needed? Over the last decade, two big questions have arisen in parallel on college campuses across the US: (1) how do we engage in public-private partnerships to better leverage our assets, and (2) how do we more fully engage with the community around us — particularly underserved portions of that community?

The Apex Project started out as a means to explore how a new tax tool (called Opportunity Zones) could answer both questions simultaneously. Opportunity Zones created an avenue to bring an unexpectedly diverse stakeholder group together around a conversation around inclusive economic growth. The more we wrote and researched, however, the more clearly we realized that what worked in an Opportunity Zone would work just as well in the Census tract next door. As a result, we expanded our focus from how higher ed engages with Opportunity Zones to how higher ed engages more generally with creating local economic resiliency.

We see this “local resiliency” work in four lanes:

  • Strengthening Institutions — as the higher ed world grapples with COVID, how can we shore up balance sheets, get projects closed, and maintain strength (or even growth) in times of uncertainty?
  • Diversifying Local Economy — how can we help local actors diversify away from traditional economic bases and capture future growth aligned with core local assets?
  • Making Local Economy More Inclusive — how can we use every resource (from procurement to access to capital to property development) to facilitate creation of wealth for traditionally underrepresented communities?
  • Interconnecting Local Economy — how can we ensure better localized supply chains, better vertical integration between local needs and university specialty disciplines (esp workforce development), and more?

We created the Apex Project to answer these questions. Everything on this site is geared towards helping create those investment opportunities that lead to local resiliency, and build the infrastructure necessary to do so.

What’s In the Apex Project? The Apex Project is a “How To” guide / instruction manual and encyclopedia rolled into one.

The “How To” guide is focused entirely on arming you with tips and strategies for diving into the resiliency work described above. It describes six different roles you can play if you want to engage, and provides a planning guide for how to decide which of those roles you want to play. We’ve provided a bit more detail on each of the six roles in the space below.

  1. Sponsoring / Doing a Deal: Are there development projects you’d like to undertake on your campus, like new housing or other facilities? Are there assets you control that you’d like to monetize to create new revenue streams? Do you have property in a nearby neighborhood that you’d like to see redeveloped? If so, you’re an Opportunity Sponsor — an institution that has your own project that you’d like to bring to market.
  2. Convening Community: Are you an anchor institution for a surrounding community? Do you want to leverage that status to build a coalition to engage in resiliency work? Is there no other local group with the capacity to drive inclusive economic growth? If so, you’re a Community Convener.
  3. Anchoring Local Development: Do you want to better harness all your local spend — on vendors, programming for students, transportation, supplies, etc. — to provide economic support to projects and businesses in your community? Then you’re a local anchor.
  4. Building Local Capacity: Do you want to provide meaningful technical assistance to projects and businesses anywhere (in my community or not) without any new major financial commitments? Then you should consider being a capacity builder.
  5. Aggregating Capital: Do you want to dive into the weeds of building capital stacks, identifying funding sources, and bringing them home for projects on your campus or in your community? If so, read our description of how to be a capital aggregator.
  6. Driving (and Measuring) Impact: Does your institution have a relationship with your surrounding community, a commitment to more intentional community development, and academic or research focus on social impact and equitable systems? Then you could be a perfect impact driver.

If the “How To” guides and roles are like an instruction manual for engaging in resiliency work, then the Guidebooks, Case Studies, and Resources are like the detailed technical reference manuals explaining the instructions. Some of you may already know how to accomplish one or more of the roles above, and are looking for the “in the weeds” practical knowledge of how to build capital stacks, structure public private partnerships, find new funding sources, or use tax credits or Opportunity Zone equity to finance deals. If so, our Guidebooks are for you.

There’s one we recommend you read regardless of your desire to roll up sleeves on finances. We believe every community should be doing more to build local wealth, and we’ve written a standalone guidebook on strategies for doing so. We’d strongly encourage all our readers, no matter their background or their chosen role, to internalize these strategies and deploy them, however they can, in their communities.

From all the feedback we got on this work, one point stood out: there is no one single repository of stories and examples of higher educational institutions doing this kind of work. Until now. Two of the biggest sections of the Apex Project are our Case Study Database and our Resources Database, each of which are indexed by role, asset class, and impact area. We hope this will give you the examples you need, and the tools, websites, and extra materials you need, to see exactly how your resiliency work can take shape locally.

And the best part? If you know of an institution that should be highlighted on the Apex Project for the incredible work they’re doing, you can submit their story to us for publication in the Case Study Database.

How Can The Apex Project Support My Work? The Apex Project is designed as a standalone tool. It could take hours, even days, to fully explore, and we made it content rich for a reason — we want to arm you with everything you need to do this work in one place. If you get to the end and are still left wondering how you can implement your vision, feel free to contact us, and we’ll try to point you in the right direction.

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