Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Goodbye to the NRP, One of My Favorite Local Finance Programs

On January 1 of next year the Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program will shut down. The StarTribune reports on the changes here. From the story:
For 20 years, a $300 million civic experiment won international plaudits for reshaping Minneapolis from the neighborhoods up. Now the city is preparing for life after the Neighborhood Revitalization Program.
On Jan. 1, the program's director for most of its existence, Bob Miller, will lose his job and the governing board of the quasi-independent NRP will be replaced. The program's functions will be taken over by a new city neighborhoods agency that's part of Mayor R.T. Rybak's administration, but many longtime neighborhood activists think they won't have the same power they wielded for two decades.
"City Hall listened when we had some money to play with, when we said we have $300,000 and we want you to fix this street," said Rita Ulrich, director of the Nokomis East neighborhood group, one of more than 60 funded by NRP. "I'm not sure that they're going to listen when we say we want you to spend $300,000."
In the late 1980s, city leaders worried that the arrival of crack cocaine, the decline in rental housing caused by federal tax law changes and a sense of deterioration would cost the city its middle class.
The Legislature responded by authorizing the NRP, which sent property tax revenue from city development projects to priorities set by neighbors.
Up to $20 million annually went to parks, schools, libraries and, especially, housing.
NRP is credited for fostering the multicultural haven of restaurants on Nicollet Avenue S. known as Eat Street. It allowed a North Side neighborhood to research suspicious property sales, leading to the federal take-down of a vast mortgage fraud ring. It generated thousands of fix-up loans or grants to property owners.
Overall this program was well received and largely worked as hoped.  Elena Fagotto and Archon Fung examined the program through the lens of empowered participation in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research in an article published in 2006. They found that:
"Although NRP distributed resources to all neighborhoods, from the most deprived to the wealthiest, not all areas received equal amounts. NRP systematically favored disadvantaged neighborhoods through a progressive funding allocation formula that included factors such as neighborhood size, poverty level and dwelling units’ condition." 
 Here is their conclusion:
"Two elements lay behind NRP’s success: the availability of resources and provisions for continuous resident participation at the neighborhood level. Power and resources were a tremendous stimulus for citizens to mobilize and participate, not only in planning, but also with their ‘sweat equity’ in thousands of volunteer hours. NRP was designed to both require and foster sustained citizen participation. The availability of substantial resources to empower residents’ decisions drew many in Minneapolis to engage in local planning and development decisions. They also used those resources to reinvigorate dozens of associations that connect volunteers and activists to city government. Despite its blemishes, the Minneapolis experience powerfully shows how public resources can be deployed to increase the civic and political engagement of citizens for public purposes."
It is unfortunate that the program will not go on. Certainly some money was wasted in the program (and a lot of murals were painted), but it also gave communities much more input and authority over investment decisions. Minneapolis is also moving away from community involvement over spending just as more cities are looking at participatory budgeting as a strategy for community revitalization and involvement. I don't know that the city will be worse off overall for not having the NRP as they still may invest the same amount, but certain neighborhoods--especially disadvantaged ones-- will certainly be worse off compared with the twenty years of the program.

Fagotto, E. and A. Fung, Empowered Participation in Urban Governance: The Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2006. 30(3): p. 638-655.


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