The Obama administration on Tuesday designated north Minneapolis one of 13 communities nationally to receive priority for future federal grants, providing more direct assistance to an area that has struggled for decades.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan came to Minneapolis to announce the “Promise Zone” designation to an elated crowd of local officials gathered at a nonprofit organization on W. Broadway, the commercial spine of the North Side.

Despite 123 applications — including one from St. Paul’s East Side — only eight new communities received the designation Tuesday.

“This is a very exciting day for the entire city of Minneapolis,” said Mayor Betsy Hodges, who fought hard for the designation. “Getting a Promise Zone designation in north Minneapolis will bring [partnerships] and resources here that will elevate our work to the next level.”

Hodges offered sparse details on which grants the city would seek; categories range from housing to education and public safety. The North Side’s two City Council members said they hoped it would aid economic development and housing improvements.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Council Member Blong Yang, who represents the most distressed half of north Minneapolis. “But I’m not going to be jumping for joy necessarily. Just because … we don’t want to overpromise on this and not deliver much.”

Fanfare also accompanied previous federal “zone” initiatives, which largely proved not to be the poverty-fighting game-changers that advocates had originally hoped. Those also came with more direct financial commitments, such as the nearly $30 million the city ultimately garnered under the “Empowerment Zone” of the 2000s. Part of that helped redevelop the Midtown Exchange and Heritage Park housing development.

‘Bring that to scale’

The Promise Zone designation will give the North Side additional points when federal officials are scoring federal grant applications to decide which get funding. The area will also qualify for additional volunteers and technical assistance. President Obama said in his 2013 State of the Union address that the program would also feature tax credits for businesses that hire and invest locally, but that component never received congressional approval, reducing the potential impact of the new designation.

San Antonio, for example, is using the aid for job training and economic development planning, as well as expanded pre-kindergarten and other educational improvements. Its zone has received $32 million in federal funds since getting the designation, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Minneapolis’ application, submitted in November, aims to reduce racial disparities, tackle gun violence, improve the North Side’s economy and provide more stable housing. But the application’s path to those goals is buried within 16 “subgoals” and more than 60 acronym-filled underlying bullet points — making the city’s precise plan hard to decipher.

Hodges said Tuesday that officials would focus on expanding programs that have proved their merit. She cited the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), the location of Tuesday’s announcement, which has used a $28 million grant to improve family success in a very specific area of north Minneapolis. In addition to helping kids in school, the funding offers a variety of other support for families — from housing to job training.

“We know who’s doing good work over here and getting outcomes,” Hodges said. “Let’s bring that to scale. Let’s show that it can happen for an entire community and not just one set of people here, one set of people there.”

Small business and housing

City Council President Barb Johnson wondered if a National Park Service grant — similar to one the city recently received to create a park in Northeast — could help redevelop part of the city’s North Side port into green space. But primarily, she hopes the designation can help the city spur small-business growth along corridors like Lowry and Penn avenues through subsidized rents.

“People in north Minneapolis want to see their neighborhoods look like the rest of the city,” Johnson said. “And have the amenities that the rest of the city [has]. And the biggest thing we’re lacking is this kind of small-business support — and the restaurants, places to shop, that kind of thing.”

Johnson was critical of the application last year, observing during committee discussions that existing government units should be doing more to tackle north Minneapolis’ problems. “What I thought is that we’ve seen these federal programs come and go … so what’s different about this? The proof is in the pudding,” she said Tuesday. “We’re going to see how it works.”

In addition to public safety and local business investments, Yang said, housing needs attention. “If we can figure out a way of fixing up our housing stock and making housing much more readily available for people, filling in our empty lots on the North Side, those things … are important to me,” he said.

Duncan encouraged local leaders to focus on new approaches, rather than the prospect of new money. “I really want to be clear: Our resources are a tiny, tiny piece of this story,” Duncan said after the announcement. “And what really matters is not our dollars … it’s leadership, it’s creativity, it’s courage here.”

That’s a distinct message from geography-based federal programs of the past — dating back to urban renewal in the 1950s — which were geared more around a handout from Washington. Ed Goetz of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School said that approach gradually evolved into offering more incentives to spur private sector investment in hard-hit areas.

“Now … the idea isn’t so much an infusion of money, but a coordination of services, a very purposeful combination and collaboration of efforts of different levels of government,” Goetz said.


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