Neighborhoods march to an uncertain destination

Staff and volunteers react to a ‘roadmap’ for neighborhood programs after 2020

The draft Neighborhoods 2020 Roadmap reflects the input of neighborhood volunteers who participated in a series of conversations on the future of neighborhoods last year, including a May meeting at Plymouth Congregational Church in Stevens Square. File photo

Minneapolis neighborhoods have seen the roadmap. Now they’re wondering where it leads.

The Neighborhoods 2020 Roadmap released in draft form by the city’s Neighborhood and Community Relations Department in February is meant to frame a conversation about the future of Minneapolis neighborhood programs. Change, in one form or another, is definitely on the way; the city’s current source for neighborhood program funding dries up in 2020, and its replacement has not yet been identified.

That has many neighborhood organization staff members and volunteers “on edge,” said Vanessa Haight, executive director of Elliot Park Neighborhood, Inc., who was still poring over the roadmap in March. Neighborhood leaders are being asked to weigh in on potentially significant changes to the city’s relationship with its 70 independent neighborhood organizations, but they don’t know what level of financial support to expect in the future or what strings may be attached, she said.

“It says it’s a roadmap, but we’re not really seeing a roadmap,” Haight said.

If the destination is unclear, the roadmap at least sketches in several possibilities.

In one proposed model, the city could evaluate neighborhood organizations and dispense funds based on each one’s capacity to impact its community. Another model would encourage greater collaboration between neighborhood organizations by pooling administrative and support functions. A third model would steer the organizations into partnerships with other community and cultural nonprofits — in part to encourage more diverse participation in neighborhood programs.

The city could also retain the current Community Participation Program in which neighborhood organizations are allocated funds every three years to engage their communities and work on local priorities.

Neighborhood and Community Relations Director David Rubedor said the draft roadmap reflects ideas collected in online surveys and developed at a series of community meetings held last year. Public comments on the document will be collected through April 30.

“These ideas were thrown out there so people could really start kicking the tires,” he said.

Roles and expectations

Rubedor is scheduled to go to the City Council in May with a revised version of the roadmap. That document will include not just a potential redesign of neighborhood programs, but also suggestions for reforming his department to better serve neighborhood organizations.

Rubedor said he also aims to clarify the city’s expectations for neighborhood organizations. The funds dispersed through the Community Participation Program are meant to be spent on neighborhood-led projects, engaging neighbors in city decisions and increasing involvement.

“The neighborhood system in the city is really our formal engagement system, so it’s really critical that it reaches as many people as possible and they’re really representative of the people within their neighborhoods,” he said.

The final version of the roadmap could also propose a new structure for the governing bodies overseeing neighborhood programs. Currently, there are two bodies that serve in an advisory capacity: the Neighborhood and Community Engagement Commission and the Neighborhood Revitalization Program Policy Board — the latter a relic of Minneapolis’ original neighborhood program that has less and less to do but is still legally required to meet at least four times each year.

“At that point, my intent is to have the (mayor and Finance Department) put neighborhoods into the long-term funding plan for the city, which means we’re making the commitment that we consider this to be valuable work and moving forward,” Rubedor said.

The city currently spends over $7 million annually on neighborhood programs. That figure includes the budgets of both the Community Participation Program and Rubedor’s department, as well as the One Minneapolis Fund, an annual grant program for community and cultural organizations, Rubedor said.

That funding is currently drawn from the city’s consolidated tax-increment financing district, which expires at the end of 2019. Revenues from the TIF district cease flowing Dec. 31, 2020 — after which neighborhood programs will turn to a new and as-yet-unidentified source for funds. By that time, maintaining current levels of service will cost about $8 million a year, Rubedor said.


Tricia Markle, chair of the CARAG neighborhood organization’s board of directors, said the roadmap’s proposed alternatives to the Community Participation Program were still too vague to win her support.

“At least for CARAG, the current model works very well for us, because we have a very active base,” she said.

Whatever changes are made — or not — Markle said, the key for CARAG is maintaining enough city funding for the organization to retain its part-time executive director, Scott Engel. She described paid staff as “absolutely critical to the functioning of our neighborhood.”

Haight, the Elliot Park executive director, said neighborhoods needed more support from Rubedor’s department to fulfill their community engagement role. She described Neighborhood and Community Relations as “stretched pretty thin.”

She said an improved, centralized support system could eliminate the need for the city to push neighborhood organizations into partnerships with each other or with other nonprofits. And while pooling administrative services seemed like a promising idea, “it also threatens the independent nature of the organizations,” she said.

“If there are more of those support services we could contract out but still retain our individuality, that could work,” Haight added.

David Bagley, president of the Whittier Alliance board of directors, said it was encouraging to see the city recognize neighborhood contributions in the roadmap. The document estimates that neighborhood volunteers represent an annual value to the city of $1.9 million — a figure Rubedor may revise upward after hearing from neighborhood advocates.

“I think neighborhood organizations, while imperfect, are a tremendous asset to the city,” Bagley said. “I can’t believe the city would want to move away from something that’s a demonstrated winner.”

Bagley said a debate over how to make the city’s neighborhood programs more effective was “a really good conversation to have.” But he said the report focused too little on the role of the Neighborhood and Community Relations department.

“I didn’t see much in the report or in the process that really focused on that side of the equation,” he said. “Is that working? Is that value for money? How could that be better?”