While some politicians tout a piece of recent legislation as one way to continue Minneapolis’ Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) beyond its original 2009 end date, critics see flaws in its vague terminology, and question how dollars will be doled out in practice.
NRP, which was set up in 1989 to last for 20 years, has paved the way for all kinds of neighborhood improvements, including everything from the creation of affordable housing to the installation of street lighting, reflecting a community’s needs and wants. Community activists boast that neighborhood organizations have been able to stretch funds, by acquiring grants and forming unique partnerships — something they say they couldn’t have done without NRP.
In addition to the fact that the program is coming to a close, the $400 million the city had pledged to the initiative is now looking more like $297.2 million, a shortcoming that city officials blame on 2001 state tax law changes. (NRP is sustained through tax increments that are collected from downtown redevelopment projects.)
The proposal that passed as part of the tax omnibus bill allows for the creation of a tax base that is similar to the one that NRP draws from now to support “neighborhood revitalization” for at least a decade (in Minneapolis). It also directs that a good portion of the sum can be used to pay off the city’s looming Target Center debt.
That the Minneapolis-focused “neighborhood revitalization” bill drops the word “program,” however, is a point that worries some community activists who fear that NRP will be scrapped altogether.
Their reasoning has to do with the City Council process that is already underway, separate from the “neighborhood revitalization” bill, to rework its community engagement system. As a part of that process, it has a preliminary plan that is being referred to as the “Framework for the Future.”
Under the plan, NRP functions would be relocated to City Hall. (Since the beginning, NRP has been a separate entity, serving as a go-between for the city and residents.) Some city officials point out that by housing the NRP office in the city coordinator’s office, it will increase its accountability and efficiency. Some community activists see it as doing the exact opposite; they say that by making things more institutional they become less transparent and weaken residents’ ability to be influential on issues that matter most to them.
In defense of the “neighborhood revitalization” bill, Minneapolis Rep. Jim Davnie, one of the bill’s co-authors, maintains that the technicalities of NRP funding wouldn’t allow for it to be extended as is. That option, which had appeared in an earlier proposal this year, was “never realistic or viable,” he said. Because of the lack of Hennepin County government support for NRP, along with some fellow legislators’ criticisms of the program plus the policy hurdles, “We had to come up with something different.” In his view, the bill lays the groundwork for people to advocate for NRP. “Neighborhoods are significantly empowered in negotiating with the city over the future of NRP. Now there’s money on the table,” he said.
But NRP advocates, like Doug Walters, associate director at Nokomis East Neighborhood Association, foresees that the funding will end up contributing to the city’s “framework” plan, which he opposes. Walters suspects that legislators fought to keep the bill’s language ambiguous to leave it at the city’s discretion, he said, explaining, “The big difference is that the city would be deciding the priorities, not the neighborhoods.”
Also troubling, Walters says, is that in formal presentations in the community engagement process, the widespread pessimism of the “framework,” he says, has been marginalized. (For example, a large number of those who gave negative input on the “framework” during the public comment period were characterized as a “handful of residents.”) Another general concern is just how little money will go to neighborhood groups post-NRP, he said. Many won’t be able to cover expenses, he remarked, adding, “A lot of organizations will fail.”
City Council member Cam Gordon said that the council would be contemplating the bill and the framework in further discussions this summer. At this point, it’s unclear how the bill will play into the process. Acknowledging community skepticism, he said it provides security for the future of neighborhood revitalization. The nice thing about that is, “Maybe we don’t have to rush this so much anymore,” he said.
The City Council’s “framework” and other related materials can be found on the city’s website. Its Intergovernmental Relations Committee will discuss NRP on Tuesday.