The faces of NRP

They make their neighborhoods work today; where will they be tomorrow?

Home improvement projects, block patrols, community gatherings — they’re all things many Minneapolitans have come to expect from neighborhood groups.

Behind every neighborhood activity are myriad unseen tasks, many of them completed by volunteers. But when it comes down to the real nitty-gritty of running a neighborhood organization, in many cases it’s paid employees who make it happen.

They put in what are often long hours to do bookkeeping, arrange audits, organize meetings and motivate volunteers.

Funding from the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) — a 20-year plan that funneled cash into neighborhoods for community-chosen projects — created many neighborhood staff jobs. As the program nears its 2009 end date with no future plan in place, those jobs are threatened.

Some neighborhood groups have established other funding sources to keep paying salaries if NRP funding dries up, but other groups are in danger of losing staff completely if the program goes away.

Proposals to extend neighborhood funding are working their way through the Legislature, and the future of NRP is being discussed further at the city level through a proposal called the Framework for the Future, but nothing is certain yet.

In limbo for the moment, neighborhood employees are paying close attention to decisions that will affect their career paths and the future of the organizations they helped build.

Here’s a look at some Southwest neighborhood employees and what they think about their futures.

Sarah Linnes-Robinson, Kingfield Neighborhood Association (KFNA)

Sarah Linnes-Robinson is a KFNA veteran who started with the organization more than a decade ago.

She lives in the Kenny neighborhood, but to hear KFNA Board President David Brauer tell it, her heart and much more is in
Kingfield.

“She just bleeds for this neighborhood, even though she doesn’t live in it, which is amazing,” he said.

Linnes-Robinson said from the onset of her Kingfield career, she had been told it wasn’t permanent.

“In theory, the party line has always been that our goal was to work ourselves out of a job,” she said. “There was an end to NRP, we were supposed to accomplish our projects and the neighborhood would have a strong organization that would continue.”

But that isn’t what happened. Over the years, Linnes-Robinson said she’s only noticed more demand for what KFNA provides.

“As people get busier, as we do a better job, people come to expect more, and the job only gets bigger and bigger,” she said.

Linnes-Robinson is the executive director of KFNA and one of two part-time staff members.

“My job is basically to be the mom and hold their hand and crack the whip and you know, to make sure that what we said we want to accomplish gets done and gets done well,” she said.

She works alongside Joanna Hallstrom, KFNA’s NRP project organizer. The group also has a bookkeeper whose hours are
limited.

Hallstrom will be leaving KFNA this summer, and the organization is discussing whether it makes sense financially to fill the position. The group receives some income from fundraising and grant writing, but it is largely dependent on NRP dollars.

Linnes-Robinson said without NRP or some alternative form of funding that is relatively equal, KFNA could not support staff and would not be able to function the way it does now. She has recommended to the board that the organization as it exists now shut down if funding is no longer available.

“We’ve set our goals to say these projects need to be accomplished in two years and then I would say you fold the nonprofit organization, you close your business and you’re done and you become something else,” she said. “Because it’s not going do anyone good to say ‘now we can do this piece, we can’t do this piece.’ It’s going to leave the neighborhood frustrated.”

Linnes-Robinson said she hasn’t thought much about what she would do if she lost her job with Kingfield. Right now she’s focused on doing her job as best she can for as long as she can.

“I don’t think it’s good to look at the end,” she said. “It’s important for the association to continue working on everything it can, as hard as it can until it can’t anymore.”

Mark Hinds, Lyndale Neighborhood Association (LNA)

Mark Hinds is a longtime community activist who started working full-time as the Lyndale Neighborhood Association’s (LNA) executive director in September 2006.

Hinds is a strong advocate for NRP and is convinced that its end would result in the boarding up of many neighborhood
organizations.

“If the funding goes away, there are going to be a lot of neighborhoods that will, quite frankly, shutter their doors,” he said.

But Lyndale, Hinds said, is better off than some. LNA receives about half its income from NRP, the other half is from fundraising and grants. Lyndale does well enough with the latter to “weather the storm” for a while, Hinds said.

“We’re definitely watching and very active in what happens for the next phase of NRP, but we’re not at the point yet where we have to start planning on reducing staff or downsizing the organization,” Hinds said.

Lyndale has three full-time employees. LNA could probably maintain those employees for two or three years, Hinds said.

He’s hoping LNA’s staff positions are long-term, for more than the sake of the individual employees. Staff members do all the backroom work that volunteers won’t do, and that work is vital for keeping the organization up and running, he said.

“We’re a $400,000–$500,000-a-year organization,” Hinds said. “There’s a lot of backroom stuff that you just have to take care of.”

Steven Gallagher, Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO)

Steven Gallagher’s first few months as executive director of the SSCO were a trial by fire.

Gallagher was hired in August. In September, the organization was in “crisis,” he said.

Dramatically reduced funding projections for the NRP program made it appear as if SSCO would run out of money within months. Luckily for Gallagher, and SSCO, those dire funding projections were soon revised.

“That was real fun to walk into,” he joked.

Still, for SSCO and many other neighborhoods, it was a wake-up call.

“We did a strategic plan (on) how to compensate for the loss of funds,” he said. “Fortunately enough, Stevens Square has a large program income from our revolving loan funds, both commercial and residential.”

The two funds contain more than $1.3 million. That money that could be diverted to sustain the organization for six to seven years, if necessary, he said.

But that was a worst-case scenario. SSCO leaders hoped to limit that possibility through other fundraising strategies, including neighborhood partnerships and grants.

Without funding for two staff members — the other full-time employee is Safety and Outreach Coordinator Dave Delvoye — Gallagher predicted much of the organization’s work on development, crime and safety, and fundraising wouldn’t get done. He said he put in 60–70 hours each week dealing with neighborhood issues, arranging meetings with city staff and talking to neighborhood property owners.

“Volunteers work during the day,” he said. “They don’t have time to do the work that we do.”

SSCO President Barb Jacobs, a volunteer, agreed. Jacobs said the neighborhood’s successful crime and safety program regularly brought together police, city staff and residents for monthly meetings.

“It’s a full-time job to coordinate all of these different moving pieces,” Jacobs said. “If just Dave were to leave, essentially all of our safety program would fall apart.”

Marian Biehn, Whittier Alliance executive director

When Marian Biehn heard the city’s initial proposal for the Framework for the Future, she realized it would mean drastic changes for the Whittier Alliance office.

Biehn estimated the $2 million proposed for neighborhood administrative costs, divided equally, would have allowed Whittier about $21,000 per year for staff. That would have left the Whittier Alliance office — where she works with a full-time neighborhood organizer and a part-time office coordinator — empty for all but two days of the week, she said.

From her perspective, the funding decision was shortsighted.

“Neighborhood staff do a lot of beneficial work that the city doesn’t pick up on and do … or wouldn’t be aware of,” Biehn said.

That work, over the years, has made once run-down neighborhoods like Whittier, Stevens Square and Lyndale, viable again, she argued.

“We keep people living in an urban setting,” Biehn said.

Biehn emphasized the importance of a network of organizations working to improve their own neighborhoods and also coming together to tackle shared concerns. Whittier and Stevens Square have joined forces on Nicollet Avenue development and safety concerns in their
neighborhoods.

“If, for example, Steve and Dave weren’t there” — she said, referring, respectively, to Gallagher and Delvoye of SSCO — “the safety concerns would be more paramount.”