About 80 people gathered in the basement of Plymouth Congregational Church on a Tuesday evening in April to join a conversation that will shape the future of Minneapolis’ neighborhood organizations.
With questions about neighborhood funding looming, Minneapolis is first seeking to more clearly define the role its 70 neighborhood organizations play. So, while a cold rain fell outside, attendees of the first Neighborhoods 2020 Café filled up at a free taco bar and then broke into small groups to discuss what neighborhood organizations should do, what they should look like and how they should connect with their constituents.
“They’re each very different, and so it’s hard to categorize them easily, but I think what this will do is help us see that intersection between neighborhood organizations and the city and then help us think about how to guide future programming to support them,” said Robert Thompson, a policy specialist in the Neighborhood and Community Relations Department.
A set of recommendations is expected to go to the City Council next year, and the five cafe events are being used to gather input, Thompson said. A report due to the Neighborhood and Community Engagement Commission in June — about a month after the final cafe event on May 8 at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park — will give a preview of those recommendations.
The deadline the city is anticipating arrives in 2020, when the Minneapolis’ consolidated tax-increment financing district expires. Property taxes captured by the TIF district fund neighborhoods through the Community Participation Program, just as they did through the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, CPP’s two-decade-long predecessor.
Thompson said the topic of a future funding source for neighborhoods was a separate conversation that would take place in the “next phase” of post-2020 planning.
Like many in attendance at the first Neighborhoods 2020 Café, Ken Strobel, the current president of the Stevens Square Community Organization board, was adamant that neighborhood organizations should have a significant role to play in the city going forward. Strobel credits SSCO, for which he has been a longtime volunteer, with helping turn around the neighborhood since the 1990s, when crime, drugs and prostitution were significant issues.
“I feel it’s important people have somewhere they can voice their concerns and get involved,” he said, adding that the role of neighborhood organizations “is to basically foster community.”
A debated role
While the city views neighborhood organizations as a key channel for engaging residents, they have also been criticized for not equitably representing their constituencies.
Neighborhood and Community Relations recently surveyed neighborhood organizations for the second time and found a persistent lack of diversity on boards. Renters and people of color are particularly underrepresented, according to the November 2016 report.
That has led some to question whether neighborhood organizations should have any role in the city, at all — an issue Thompson said he “would not be surprised” to hear raised in a café.
Minneapolis recently conducted a similar community process to make updates to the city’s comprehensive plan. When one anonymous community member’s suggestion to “abolish recognition of neighborhood organizations” — infamously submitted via Post-it Note — was included in a document summarizing civic engagement, 17 neighborhood organizations passed a resolution demanding it be stricken from the report. City Council Member Kevin Reich (Ward 1) moved to do so during a Zoning and Planning Committee meeting, but fellow committee member Lisa Goodman suggested a compromise that put language recognizing the “core and vital service neighborhood organizations provide to the City of Minneapolis” into a resolution later adopted by the full City Council.
When Goodman, who represents Ward 7 on the council, delivered a brief opening statement at the first Neighborhoods 2020 Café event, she described neighborhoods as “the backbone of Minneapolis” — a line that prompted participants to set down their tacos and applaud.
Influence and engagement
The applause was an indication that many at the first café preferred to see neighborhood organizations maintain their influence — or even grow it. In response to the questions about the characteristics of an effective neighborhood organization, Tangletown resident Loren Niemi suggested “political clout.”
“Historically, neighborhood organizations have had tremendous influence on the city process,” Niemi said.
Those relationships have started to “chafe” elected officials, he observed. But Niemi insisted neighborhood input, particularly on hot-button issues like parking and development, is essential, and neighborhoods need to have the attention of city staff and council members.
“Over and over again it makes a difference,” he said.
David Bagley, a board member for the Whittier Alliance neighborhood organization, said he doesn’t see the city leveraging the skills and experience of neighborhood volunteers.
“There’s a missed opportunity of hundreds of local volunteer hours and expertise, people working to make neighborhood more livable,” Bagley said.
Instead, he said, the city fosters a “false sense of engagement,” particularly on matters of development. Neighborhood organizations serve a strictly advisory role on development, but developers are encouraged to meet with the groups before seeking approvals for the projects at the City Council.
“People turn up, they vent their opinions, … feel like they’re being heard, but in reality, the city effectively ignores that input,” he said.
Tim Bildsoe, president of the North Loop Neighborhood Association, expressed a positive view of the relationship between his organization and the city. Bildsoe said neighborhood organizations fill a “gap” between City Council members and their diverse constituencies.
“We’re essentially their ears,” he said, describing neighborhood organizations as “a basic political structure.”
Bildsoe said he and other members of the NLNA hope the city finds a way to continue funding neighborhood organizations beyond 2020. But if it didn’t, it wouldn’t mean the end for NLNA, either.
“If the funds from the city went away, we’d find a way to continue on,” he said.
Bildsoe noted that about 50 North Loop residents recently got together to pick up trash along Washington Avenue for Earth Day. Those activities build pride in the neighborhood, he said.
“We would do that whether the city funded that or not,” he said.