How LeBron James Uses His Influence to Improve Community Development

AKRON, Ohio — Professional sports stars often use their prominence to influence public opinion and advocate change, including in real estate development. One standout is LeBron James, the Los Angeles Lakers forward and four-time National Basketball Association champion.

In Akron, Mr. James is building a model for advancing education and social assistance in the West Market Street neighborhood, where he was raised. A new school, three residential buildings and a sports-and-entertainment complex represent more than $20 million in investment by the LeBron James Family Foundation and its partners.

In building projects that serve the public interest, Mr. James has joined an expanding movement of developers around the country who mix new ingredients into the formula for socially responsible development. The term was initially defined by advances in design like energy efficiency, environmental safety and affordability. Developers now construct buildings and neighborhoods that make those assets and others — health care, recreation, good schools, safe streets — accessible to residents in neglected communities.

Examples are numerous. Among them is the East Harlem Center for Living and Learning, a mixed-use project on 104th Street in Manhattan. The $84 million building, completed in 2015, includes 89 affordable housing units, office space and the Dream Charter School for 500 students from kindergarten through the eighth grade. The project also includes a renovated public park.

“LeBron James is part of a movement of community revitalization,” said Jonathan F.P. Rose, president of Jonathan Rose Companies in New York, the center’s developer. “He’ll find the more he does, the more these pieces connect and make a difference.”

Other sports stars invest in struggling communities. Magic Johnson Enterprises, the former N.B.A. star’s company, has invested in movie theaters, Starbucks franchises and restaurants in underserved neighborhoods across the country. In 2015, Magic Johnson Enterprises joined with Loop Capital to form JLC Infrastructure to invest in urban transportation, utilities, communications and energy.

Mo Vaughn, who spent part of his baseball career with the New York Mets, is a co-founder of Omni New York, which specializes in buying and renovating apartment buildings for affordable housing in struggling neighborhoods in and outside the city.

Sports stars can leverage their personal prominence to help move projects along. When he was the mayor of Sacramento from 2008 to 2016, Kevin Johnson, a former N.B.A. All-Star, led the campaign to keep the Sacramento Kings in California’s capital. He worked closely with Vivek Ranadive, the team’s majority owner, to build a $500 million arena that is the centerpiece of the $1 billion mixed-use Downtown Commons, which turned empty central city blocks into an active center of entertainment.

Mr. James’s model of development, real estate authorities say, differs from those efforts because it relies on his stature to recruit public and private capital to embrace a suite of social goals, and then build projects to pursue them. The value proposition is to develop projects that help curb family disorder and instill learning, life and work skills so that underperforming children graduate from high school, attend college and have a successful career. The individual pieces, though, are owned and managed by different agencies.

“It’s a promising model for community redevelopment at a holistic level,” said Jeff Levine, a lecturer of economic development and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It delivers high-value development in places where there aren’t resources for people to do it themselves.”

“The impact LeBron is having in Akron — it’s amazing,” Mr. Weprin said. “He’s doing this while he’s winning championships.”

Recognizing that his approach might have merit in other cities, Mr. James and the foundation staff convened a three-day “huddle” in Akron in October to describe the I Promise model to attendees. About 200 educators, philanthropists, activists, city leaders and development professionals showed up.

“This work requires a long-term investment, a lot of heart and a lot of hard work,” Mr. James said. “There are people across the country who are willing and want to be a part of that in their own community.”

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