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GUEST COLUMN: Investing in the community

Community finance is not a new concept, but it has seen its fair share of changes over the past 100 years.

It’s no surprise that “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” was a national bestseller as we entered the 21st century over two decades ago. In the decline of social capital and the disintegration of key social structures, the world of finance was not immune.

John Crawford

Centralized financial institutions became more sought after, while smaller, locally owned and operated community banks were gobbled up. Consolidation reigned, driven by the pursuit of lower costs and greater efficiency. But in that consolidation, hidden costs appeared that we hadn’t anticipated.

Trust is the most basic currency in business, and that trust is cultivated through personal relationships. As finance became more distant and less personal, this community currency eroded. With it, those hidden costs came in the form of lost local jobs, untapped resources and poor services.

While combining and homogenizing local banks was an obvious change in the world of community finance, it certainly wasn’t the first. Long forgotten by most are direct investments within a local community.

Local investments, once commonplace, have been limited ever since the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934. Those laws kicked-off a two-tier system that defines local investing to this day.

While providing protection to some investors, the system also created a sharp dividing line. It prohibited the “unaccredited” investor from making direct investments in community projects or businesses (with just a few exceptions). Sadly, this “unaccredited” category of investors is defined by income or net worth requirements that represent over 95 percent of the population.

Fortunately, some of this has changed and the walls of the investing caste system are beginning to come down. Thanks to recent legislation known as “Reg CF,” the everyday person can now actively participate in investments in their own back yard. In addition, businesses and other projects can receive funding from those within their own community.

Outside investment is not bad, but something profound occurs when communities participate and invest in their own success. And something even more valuable occurs when it’s the community at large versus just a few individuals.

Strength is built through bearing weight. Assuming responsibility for our communities and then carrying that responsibility out makes us stronger. More than any time in recent history, communities need to stand together and work together to become more resilient. Technology might be new, but the idea of communities investing in themselves is not.

The Albemarle Hotel is an example of this. One hundred years ago, before the SEC or a two-tiered system, the community came together to fund the construction of the hotel, a source of pride and economic vibrance for decades to follow.

Now, Stanly County is putting on a clinic on the value of community finance, taking a step back in time to repeat a shining moment in its history. The hotel’s construction showed what can happen when a community invests in itself. And in an age of technology and global finance, this community is a lesson in economic resilience and the power of learning from your past.

John Crawford is the co-founder of Vicinity Capital, a community-focused funding portal hosting a capital raise for the redevelopment of the Albemarle Hotel. The first investment opportunity has sold out. Another opportunity is expected to open April 26.