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5Qs for John Crossman on community involvement

When you meet John Crossman and learn that his father was a civil rights leader who helped integrate churches in Central Florida in the Sixties, you are not surprised. The warm smile and calming voice of the CEO of Crossman & Company seemed more fitting for the pulpit than the trade show booth where we met him at the ICSC's Florida show. And when we probed about his management of the several hundred Southeast properties owned by his company, we learned that community involvement was one of his core values. We asked him to dig deeper on the topic of developers and community.

Developers work closely with municipal authorities to bring retail centers of value to communities. How deep a commitment should developers make to communities in which they build?
My short answer is very deep, as deep as you can. I once talked to a pastor of a church and asked what was the key to his success. He told me it was to “pierce the local culture.” The same is true in retail development. You’ve got to connect to the local culture. Think about the public school system in a community. Think about how a small investment like $500 goes a considerable way. I would tell developers to look at investing in schools.

Many town residents have a negative attitude toward developers, feeling they and their investors are simply motivated by self-interest. Are they wrong?
It depends. Like everything else in life, there’s good and bad in every occupation. Some developers are doing wonderful things to make their communities better, so I would tell municipalities to do a better job in attracting developers and retailers that have their best interests in mind. Do your homework with RFPs. Some developers want to be involved in communities for a long time to come. Some want to sell when the paint dries.

Give me a favorite example of how Crossman operates as a corporate citizen in one of its markets.
We have made a big investment in college students across the country who are interested in careers in real estate. We offer scholarships through our many properties and we also do it through the ICSC foundation. Real estate education not very prevalent in colleges across the country, but I think we’re known for it in Florida. I don’t think there’s anybody else doing it, and we’d love for other developers to join with us. The first time we endowed a scholarship, we hoped our competitors would do the same. We would love nothing better than to finish in last place in this pursuit.

Your father, the Reverend Kenneth C. Crossman, was a civil rights activist. Does his influence color the way you and Crossman & Company do business?
Absolutely. The first real estate scholarships we awarded were at Florida A&M and Bethune Cookman, both black colleges. We got involved with education because it was a legacy issue with our dad and we wanted to continue to do some bridge-building. We see some very talented students come out of our communities and go to work on Wall Street and don’t know our industry exists. We try to connect them to real estate, because even if they become CEO of a company, real estate is going to be connected to their job in some way.

If you could use one word to advise fellow developers on how to act in their communities, what would it be?
Love. If I had two, I’d add listen. One of the most common things you hear people say is that you have to learn tolerance. But, to me, tolerating is putting up with something — a baby crying on an airplane, for instance. What I prefer to say is love is the thing to learn. I’m inspired by my faith. Love your neighbors. Embrace the local communities surrounding your developments. One of the best developments I know is The Villages north of Orlando. They have a great Christmas tree lighting ceremony, they put up a big Menorah, they celebrate Oktober Fest. If it’s something that’s important to residents, they don’t tolerate it, they embrace it.
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