When North and Northeast Minneapolis home owners embark on home improvement projects, they can often apply for financial help from their neighborhood organization.
The Waite Park Community Council in Northeast, for example, started a program this month, providing $50 rebates for certain home safety improvements. It’s backed up with $10,000 in funding from the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, an initiative that’s supported neighborhood-level programs for nearly two decades.
With only about 2,400 houses in the neighborhood, the community council expects the fund will last for years. So what happens when the Neighborhood Revitalization Program ceases to exist at the end of this calendar year?
Questions like these are occupying the minds of neighborhood activists across the city as the 20-year NRP program comes to a close and City Hall prepares to take on a more direct role in funding and supporting the 81 neighborhood organizations within its boundaries.
The long and divisive debate about what should succeed NRP is expected to shift its focus from big-picture principles to the nitty-gritty details in 2009.
Despite the questions, a transition is underway as of Jan. 5. That’s the day David Rubedor started his new job at City Hall. The city hired him as a one-year transition manager. His job is to have a new Neighborhood and Community Engagement Department up and running by the end of the year.
The city department will take over the role held almost two decades by the semi-autonomous Neighborhood Revitalization Program, whose funding runs out at the end of the year after supporters were unable to convince elected officials to save it.
It’s a controversial change, one that some neighborhood leaders believe is meant to take power and funding away from neighborhood groups and give City Hall more authority over neighborhood spending and activities.
Rubedor, a Jordan neighborhood resident with more than 10 years experience managing local nonprofits, said he knows he’s walking into a sensitive assignment, and that the challenge is part of what drew him to the job.
“I understand the fears and concerns brought out by this [process],” Rubedor said. “I think we can work through them.” His strategy: be accessible and look for common goals.
The mission stems from a City Council action in September. In a four-page resolution co-authored by Northeast Council Member Paul Ostrow, the Council outlined its vision for how neighborhood groups are to be structured around the city after NRP.
It’s up to Rubedor to turn that four-page document into a living, breathing, functioning city department. Initially the department will include some staff members currently in other departments, including the city’s community engagement coordinator, homeless coordinator and multi-cultural services staff.
The City Council approved a $1 million budget for 2009.
One of Rubedor’s first tasks will be convening and facilitating the new commission. In addition to eight neighborhood representatives, five people will be appointed by the City Council, two by the mayor and one by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
The Waite Park Community Council organized a citywide meeting in December for neighborhood leaders to begin discussing how they will choose their appointments. A second citywide neighborhood meeting, this one called by NRP, is scheduled for Feb. 21 for activists to continue their discussion of who should represent their interests.
The role of the commission was a source of disagreement last fall when it was created. Some neighborhood activists view the commission as largely powerless.
“It is perceived as a toothless body at this point,” said Gayle Bonneville, an NRP staff coordinator for the Windom Park and St. Anthony West neighborhoods. “[The commission’s] recommendations can be ignored by the higher-ups at City Hall, or not.”
Neighborhood advocates were hoping the commission would be given the power to hire and fire the new department’s director. A vote on that failed, however, and so that job belongs to the city coordinator.
The engagement department aims to tackle a broader range of responsibilities than NRP currently does. Rubedor said the office will oversee neighborhood programming, as well as work on access, outreach and participation issues. It will also seek ways to improve how the city and community groups interact and work together, he said.
“Our attempt is to make it a better system,” Rubedor said. The successes of NRP will help inform the new department, he said, but he will also be looking for ways to improve the system.
“It’s not likely it’s going to be totally overhauled, but clearly we’ll look at what’s worked and what hasn’t,” Rubedor said. But he said neighborhood organizations shouldn’t expect “dramatic” changes for programming.
The City Council resolution sets the parameters, but Rubedor said he believes it leaves a good amount of latitude for how the department is finally shaped.
Increasing participation by communities of color will be a high priority, he said. One strategy may be to partner with existing organizations that are known by communities.
Before moving to the North Side, Rubedor lived in the Powderhorn neighborhood, where he once served as director of the neighborhood association. He was also a volunteer member of the city’s Community Engagement Task Force, which gathered input and made recommendations to the City Council about the new neighborhood engagement system.
He’s currently executive director of PRG, Inc., a non-profit organization that works on affordable housing and community development projects in several Minneapolis neighborhoods. It’s in that role that Jose Velez has worked with Rubedor. Velez is an aide to Council Member Don Samuels (Ward 5) and one of the candidates running for City Council in Ward 1 this year.
“I think David Rubedor is definitely the right guy,” Velez said. “He’s got some incredible expertise, not only at the neighborhood level, but also working in the city process.”
Velez said he’s been particularly impressed with how Rubedor advanced a redevelopment plan for the former Big Stop property at 26th and Knox avenues, a former drug hotspot now in the city’s ownership.
“They worked with the community. They worked with our office. Our only problem now is the housing market,” Velez said. “I think very highly of him, and I’m very excited he’s working with the city.”
Kevin Reich, a Windom Park Citizens in Action board member who is also running for City Council in the First Ward, said the city’s community engagement discussion has always focused too much on how neighborhood groups are going to work with the city.
The opposite is rarely talked about, though, Reich said. He’d like to see more discussion this year about how city departments are going to change to work more effectively with neighborhood groups.
“It’s kind of like the homework project that never got done,” Reich said. “These things need to have more than words and nice sentiments.”
Reich said he’d also like to see a conversation this year about how the city and neighborhoods can share services. “There are things that community groups and city departments are both doing. How can city departments take advantage of what we’re doing?” Reich said.
Neighborhood groups have “a human touch to communicating,” Reich said. City departments might be able to eliminate redundancies if they share meetings and mailings with neighborhood groups, for example.
Ostrow said neighborhood organizations have “unfinished business,” too, when it comes to things such as outreach and participation. Finding ways for neighborhoods to work with city departments and vice versa is going to be a critical piece.
“I would argue it’s even more critical because of the severe financial times,” said Ostrow. “We’re not going to have the resources to have two separate worlds… We’ve got to be more complementary. We need to look at it in both directions.”
Ostrow said he sees potential in possibly broadening the scope of block club leaders, for example, to be involved in more areas than crime prevention.
Jeff Strand, a member of the NRP policy board and the Shingle Creek neighborhood board, is a finalist for one of the mayor and City Council’s appointments to the commission. He said he hopes there won’t be a rift on the commission between neighborhood and city appointees.
“I think we’re going to have to make sure there’s a strong communication between the exist NRP and new department,” Strand said. That’s critical he said, because even though NRP’s new funding stream will end this year, many neighborhoods will be managing projects paid for with NRP dollars for years, such as the security rebate program in Waite Park.
“We’re hoping that we won’t be stuck with a lapse in funding,” said Jeffrey Martin, president of the Waite Park Community Council. “We’re very interested in how this unfolds.”
Dan Haugen is a freelance writer who lives in the Waite Park neighborhood. You can contact him at 612-216-1057 or firstname.lastname@example.org.