Federal government taps 2 Knight cities for Strong Cities, Strong Communities program

Communities / Article

Two Knight Foundation communities will receive help from the federal government in executing their strategic visions for economic growth under the Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative.

Macon, Ga., one of eight communities where a Knight program director leads foundation grant-making, and Gary, Ind., where Knight investments are channeled through a donor-advised fund, will join the program started by the White House in 2011.

Strong Cities, Strong Communities deploys experts to cities to evaluate local needs, listen to local ideas and then determine the best method for supporting programs in areas such as the economy, housing, public health, public safety and transportation, said Shaun Donovan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Support consists of advisers in the field and within agencies who can help cities cut through government bureaucracy, connect to peer networks, maximize existing resources and “create ladders of opportunity,” he said.

“This is an all-out government effort,” Donovan added. “It’s about every aspect of what our challenged cities and communities need to create jobs and opportunity.” 

One of the key measurements for inclusion in the program, Donovan said, is having a local government that has a clear strategy that it wants to pursue that also has buy-in from the private and nonprofit sectors. For example, the Macon-Bibb County Urban Redevelopment Authority is leading a master planning process to revitalize the city’s historic center, and Macon’s College Hill Alliance has received international awards for its work in leveraging public and private investment along the College Hill Corridor. Knight investments have been essential catalysts for the work, said Beverly Blake, Knight’s Macon program director.

“We see the effects of community collaboration every day here in Macon,” she said.  “People are working together to maximize our assets and create vibrant neighborhoods. This is an endorsement of that work and an incentive to build on our progress.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development invited 91 cities to apply last summer, Donovan said; 51 submitted applications and underwent an “intensive process” that included site visits with finalists and meetings with local leaders from governments, nonprofits, foundations and businesses. Other cities that will receive help include Brownsville, Texas; Flint, Mich.; Rockford, Ill.; Rocky Mount, N.C.; and St. Louis.

Donovan said the initiative assigns approximately eight to 10 employees from different federal agencies to work with the cities, some of them on the ground embedded with local officials, he said. The program also provides additional capacity through work with professional fellows and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers. The initiative customizes support for each city with input from the local leadership, Donovan said.

The Strong Cities, Strong Communities designation “will enable us to more effectively use federal, state and local money to improve our community,” Robert Reichert, mayor of Macon-Bibb County, said in a statement. “From extending our runway, to attacking blight in our neighborhoods, to attracting businesses and industries of all sizes in to a sustainable urban core, this initiative will have a huge impact on our future.”

Detroit, a Knight resident community with a local program director, joined the initiative in 2011, its inaugural year. Through its Community and National Initiatives program, Knight invests in 26 cities, such as Detroit, Gary and Macon, where its founders once operated newspapers. Donovan said federal help in Detroit has included acceleration of plans for a light rail line and demolition of blighted public housing. 

Many of the cities chosen for Strong Cities, Strong Communities have faced decades of economic distress and other problems, Donovan said, but “despite those challenges they have been able to bring together the public and private sectors and say, ‘Here is the pathway forward.’”

Gary has been working with partners across sectors to help plan redevelopment of several neighborhoods under the Northside Redevelopment Project. A recent partnership with the Harris School for Public Policy at the University of Chicago is helping the city identify blighted properties and pursue solutions for revitalization.

Planning will begin with the cities this month, although full teams should be staffed by March, Donovan said. The government makes a commitment to the cities for one year, which can be extended to two years, along with ongoing technical assistance that may extend beyond that, he said.