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Project Dirt: funding community projects

Posted by Property Week on 25th Apr 2017

Despite owning and managing some of the largest pieces of real estate in towns and cities across the country, shopping centre landlords can often be somewhat anonymous. 

Jaya Relwani, the marketing manager at shopping centre investment manager Ellandi, says that people in the towns they operate in often mistakenly think the malls are run by the council. But a new start-up is setting out to change that, by providing an online platform for retail investors to fund grassroots community projects run by the people who use their centres. 

Project Dirt was set up by Mark Shearer of Shearer Property Group. One of its biggest partners so far has been Ellandi, which has rolled out community grants across four of its schemes. Property companies giving to good causes is nothing new, but Shearer says that Project Dirt’s primary aim is to enable investors to ingratiate themselves with their target customers. 

“Retail landlords need to reach people in their communities and tech enables that,” Shearer says. 

“It’s not just about charitable giving and sending a report in at the end of the year; it’s about activating what Ellandi is at its core.” 

Project Dirt is built around an online portal whereby shopping centres can display the projects they support and post pictures and updates.

Mark Robinson, Ellandi’s director of property, says the grants help win around its target customers when it acquires a centre in a new area. “We get involved in some underinvested shopping centres where the previous owner is perceived to have been neglectful of the community,” he explains. “If we are doing a refurbishment, we have to go through planning and procurement and it can seem like we aren’t doing anything for the first 12 months - which is not how we want to be portrayed.” 

Spreading goodwill 

The four centres to which Ellandi has so far given grants - Dartford’s Priory Centre, the Parkway Centre in Colby Newham, Chelmsley Wood in north Solihull and the Pentagon Centre in Chatham - have all been new acquisitions. 

It awards an average of £15,000 per round of funding across an average of nine projects. Around 35 applications are received on average for each round of funding, and Ellandi will sometimes help out projects that it cannot fund in other ways, for example by letting them use a vacant unit.

Projects it has funded so far include a powerchair football team, a community choir and a horseriding centre for disabled people.

“It also helps generate goodwill with the tenants and a point of difference with other stakeholders such as the local authority,” Robinson continues. “It gets you on the front foot and shows we’re not just another shopping centre investor from London who doesn’t know anything about the community.” 

There is also a marketing upside - and some of the funding for the grants comes from Ellandi’s marketing budget. “It’s a much more effective way of marketing our centres than the local press or ads on buses,” Relwani says.

PIMBYs 

So successful has the project been that Shearer is now planning to scale it up. He and his partners at Project Dirt are in the process of raising £1m for a new platform, PIMBY - standing for Projects in My Back Yard. 

This would create a website to host pages for companies wanting to support community projects. Funders and applicants would be matched online and funders would invite others to match-fund them. Money would be transferred online, with PIMBY taking a commission of around 6%.

The project has already garnered significant interest from the property world. “Some of the biggest shopping centre companies are doing trials with us - they are really interested in this area,” says Shearer, who adds that interested parties include some of the industry’s ‘household names’. 

If the idea takes off, many more people could become familiar with their friendly local shopping centre landlord.

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