A special federal designation meant to revitalize north Minneapolis is beginning to earn some extra help, but city and community leaders say it’s too early to measure any significant progress.
Last April, Minneapolis became one of 13 communities with a “Promise Zone” — a high-poverty area given priority status for federal grants, volunteers and other help from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The communities selected by the White House for the designation maintain the status for 10 years as they work on goals ranging from higher graduation and employment rates to safer streets and lower crime rates.
A year later, Minneapolis has landed two grants, totaling about $3.8 million, that officials attribute to the Promise Zone. The city has added an employee to manage the effort and a HUD liaison is spending a few days a week at City Hall. Soon, 10 AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers will begin working out of north Minneapolis to help coordinate efforts between the city and the long list of government and nonprofit groups that have pledged to help with the Promise Zone.
Michelle Horovitz, executive director of Appetite for Change, said leaders of North Side community groups are in “a wait-and-see mode” as they consider whether the Promise Zone will provide any lasting solutions. Her group is one that has already won funding; it will share in a $374,402 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture meant to bring more fresh and healthy food options to the area.
“It seems like it has the potential to be different, if enough projects are getting preferential treatment from the feds at all levels,” she said. “Not just social programs, but economic development and workforce development and other for-profit projects — that could provide an influx of capital investment that the community really needs.”
The food-project grant will be used to help restart a group called Northside Fresh, which has gone dormant after losing its funding. Horovitz said the coalition links up the work of multiple organizations. One example: Northpoint Health and Wellness Center will be able to provide “prescriptions” for free fresh produce that can be redeemed at the West Broadway Farmers Market.
The second Promise Zone-related grant, about $3.4 million for lead hazard reduction efforts, came from HUD.
Julianne Leerssen, the city’s manager of equity and inclusion and the top city official working on the Promise Zone, said the city didn’t have time to apply for many other grants right away. She said she began work in September, late in the annual federal grant-making process. Since then, she’s submitted eight grant applications connected to the Promise Zone, all of which are pending.
Elsewhere around the country, the three cities that first received Promise Zone designations, in 2014, have reported considerable early success. Fifteen months into Los Angeles’ Promise Zone designation, officials said the city had received $38 million in federal funding, while San Antonio brought in $10 million. Philadelphia’s zone attracted $30 million in federal, state and private funds.
While the Promise Zone designation helps secure federal money, officials in other cities said it can also attract private investment.
San Antonio says more than $84 million in public and private investments have poured into its Promise Zone. The city also touts the opening of 21 new businesses in its Promise Zone since receiving the designation.
In Philadelphia, Promise Zone Director Owen Franklin said investments there now total more than $37 million, with the largest grants for health and education efforts.
He said the lack of direct funding that comes with the Promise Zone designation is both an asset and a challenge. It provides help to people who are already working in the area, but it can make the program difficult to explain.
“There’s no sticker that’s handed to you that says, ‘This service brought to you by the Promise Zone,’ ” he said. “It’s understandable that sometimes residents wonder about the benefits.”
Signs of change
Leerssen said she believes the Promise Zone effort is different from others that have been tried before on the North Side because it tackles multiple issues at the same time.
In the future, she said, signs that the Promise Zone is making a difference could include safer streets, more students graduating, more people finding jobs and stable housing, and a broader range of businesses locating in north Minneapolis.
“We’ll have something other than fast food and nail shops on West Broadway,” she said, adding that there are some other businesses in the area, but it needs more to accomplish a diverse mix.
Since the Promise Zone designation, the North Side has been home to weeks of protests following the police shooting of Jamar Clark. In recent weeks, its neighborhoods have seen a spike in gun violence that police attribute to an ongoing gang feud.
Council Member Blong Yang, who represents one of two North Side council wards, said he hasn’t heard much about the Promise Zone in recent months but is optimistic that it will begin to yield benefits for the city and help tackle persistent issues like crime.
Leerssen said the city is seeing signs of hope — and indications that the Promise Zone is starting to make a difference.
“Too often, we try to save the world and don’t look at the steps that are happening to get there,” she said.