Rybak’s take on the future of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program

What will be the future of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP)? That’s the question neighborhood leaders across the city are wrestling with as the nearly 20-year program faces funding challenges and an uncertain future. Advocates of NRP are passionate about the program and anxious about change. It’s a tricky political issue for folks at City Hall. While many city leaders express support for NRP, many acknowledge that finding funding to keep it afloat is a serious challenge and money might be better spent on other city priorities. Recently, Mayor R.T. Rybak spoke with the Southwest Journal about the state of NRP and shared his vision for the future of the program. Highlights of the interview follow.

SWJ: As the clock is running out on NRP, what should be the future of civic engagement in the city?

Rybak: We are all disappointed and angry that the legislative changes in 2001 radically cut the money we have had for neighborhoods. I’m angry at that, but I think right now the key is to make sure the program survives.

And I believe the key part of this program is to make sure that we find a way to get funding to neighborhood organizations and find a way for those neighborhood organizations to have some discretionary funding that they completely control. That won’t be easy, but I believe strongly in that and I’m going to work hard for it.

The second part of this is to also go back to the original intent of NRP, which is to reinvent the way that the city spends money to reflect the values of people in neighborhoods. I think we have a great opportunity to improve that. So along with trying to get funding for neighborhood organizations and find a way for them to have discretionary funds, we’re spending a lot of time looking at how a neighbor who goes to the corner and develops a plan for their area with their neighbors can have a deeper influence on the money that is spent and allocated at City Hall.

As I’ve worked with council members on this, there seems to be some consensus that the city is going to look for ways to find some funding for neighborhood organizations, identify discretionary funding for those organizations that need to get back to this unmet goal of NRP, which is to redesign city services, and that neighborhood goals ought to be better served in the city’s day-to-day operations.

The big questions remaining are how it’s governed, where the funding comes from and how those services are redeveloped.

There is one other thing that I support, which is because the state law changes so significantly cut funding to neighborhood organizations, we should give the organizations more flexibility and remove the mandate to spend a certain percentage on housing.

SWJ: What have been the greatest strengths of NRP?

Rybak: NRP has done tremendous things throughout the city — both big and small, but the most important is that it has given city residents a sense that they can go to their corner and plan the future of their community with their neighbors.

SWJ: What are some of the weaknesses, or things that need to be fine-tuned?

Rybak: … Before I was mayor, as a city resident who went down to my neighborhood meetings, I was pleased that we could have an impact on dollars that we controlled, but the vision we had for our neighborhood wasn’t always integrated into the vision down at City Hall. I believe we can do that much better.

And an example is that every time we plan the capital budget, which is where we decide how much we spend on roads, bridges, and bike trails and other physical improvements in the city, every neighborhood plan has some proposed physical improvements. I want us to do a better job of having those neighborhoods’ plans influence that capital budget.

… We should do a better job of integrating all the different community input and empowerment that we have in this city so that a neighborhood organization that is planning a physical improvement in a community is tied better to block clubs that are looking at public safety that are tied more closely to parent councils at schools that are tied more closely to local groups that could be working on an environmental issue like watershed improvement.

In my job, I’m out in the community almost every night going to one and sometimes three meetings, and there are thousands of people doing incredible work in communities. Right now is our chance to take all of that energy and weave it together better so that we are finally delivering on the original promise of the NRP, which is to reinvent the way the city delivers services so it reflects better what is happening in neighborhoods.

I also think we are in a period of time now that is very exciting where there are new technologies that make it easier. Implementing the 311 phone system has given us some great background on some great data on what are the interests and the challenges that drive people to call City Hall, and what’s getting done and not done.

The wireless initiative is going to create tremendous opportunity for neighborhood portals that improve two-way communication with residents. …

Because of the law changes in 2001, these past few years have been very difficult. There has been dramatically less money. I’m angry. A lot of people are angry and rightfully so, but right now is the time for us to stand back after 20 years and say that a program that has done a lot for Minneapolis needs to survive and it can be even better.

Whenever there is change, there are people who are concerned, and they should be, but I think if we do this right, a few years from now, people will look back at this as a period of time in which Minneapolis reasserted its value that neighborhoods and residents are the critical part of what makes a city great.

SWJ: What about the way to fund it?

Rybak: It cannot be funded they way it used to because originally that strategy was going to deliver $400 million to NRP and $600 million to the city’s community-based development program. … It wound up delivering $297 million for NRP and zero for the city. (Since 2001, it has been $84 million for NRP and nothing for the city).

… I’m angry and disappointed that that happened. It’s a reality, and in spite of that I think we can have a great future for a great program.

SWJ: How can it be funded differently?

Rybak: You have to set priorities, and the most important priority is that neighborhood organizations have the capacity to help neighbors. We have to figure out a way to do that because all of the work we do in trying to develop a neighborhood plan, trying to allocate micro grants for things like energy, or housing or anything else, can’t be done unless there is capacity in a neighborhood.

So the first thing to do is to deal with that capacity. The second priority is to say that neighborhoods become stronger if they have some ability to fully control some money, and then there will be other times when the city is trying to deal with a priority and we find it better to get it done by allocating micro grants to neighborhoods. I have begun to move down that path in my last couple budgets by doing neighborhood-based micro grants. …

So if you look at these priorities, it’s neighborhood capacity, neighborhood discretionary funding, and then reallocating the way the city spends money so through micro grants or other programs we’re putting money into that system that never was used before.

SWJ: What about prioritizing which neighborhoods have greater needs?

Rybak: All neighborhoods are not created equal. The program needs to reflect that some have greater needs than others. It also needs to reflect that Minneapolis has changed dramatically since 1989. We’re more diverse, people get information differently, there is a growing role for community organizations. The new plan needs to reflect the new Minneapolis.