NRP merger plan has skeptics

Steve Brandt, Star Tribune

November 3, 2001

Activists are wary of Mayor Sayles Belton's support for combining the city's community development and neighborhood revitalization programs.

Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton's recent call to merge the city's neighborhood revitalization and community development programs is getting a skeptical response from neighborhood activists.

Their fear: that the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, a 20-year commitment to pump money into priorities set by neighborhoods, would get swallowed up by the older, bigger Minneapolis Community Development Agency, which they see as focused on large development projects. Both have been hit hard by recent legislative changes that shrink the tax yield of the development districts that finance them.

"The NRP is the one of the most-accessible parts of [city government] for your average citizen" said Kevin Reich of the Holland neighborhood in northeast Minneapolis.

The mayor's pronouncement to the Star Tribune's editorial board is a switch from the one presented in her budget speech in August (she'll lay out her 2002 budget specifics on Thursday). Her challenger in Tuesday's election, R.T. Rybak, said in August he wants to form a single, community-based agency from the MCDA and the NRP.

NRP Director Robert Miller said he was surprised by the mayor's position because a team of City Hall department heads she set up last summer is still gathering public input before making long-term recommendations on development.

"Whatever happened to this public process we're supposed to be doing?" Miller asked. He said a merger could sacrifice NRP's citizen-driven ethos: "Bureaucracy has a different way of responding than neighborhoods do."

A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll in mid-September found that 77 percent of likely Minneapolis voters thought the program should be continued.

Only 15 percent of those polled said the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Sayles Belton said tight times mean revamping the city's approach. "I think everyone would come to the conclusion we ought not use taxpayer money for duplication of services," she said.

Yet a sprinkling of neighborhood activists interviewed this week said they're wary of what will happen to the NRP if it's merged with the MCDA.

"It would be a shame to lose that voice," said Roberta Englund, staff director for the Folwell neighborhood in north Minneapolis.
At a glance: MCDA vs. NRP

Minneapolis Community Development Agency:
Runs city housing and economic-development programs (this includes money to build, demolish and renovate hosuing). Also runs business development programs, both downtown and in neighborhoods. Has a major role in riverfront development. Most of its money comes from state and federal aid, taxes produced by development districts or from proceeds such as the sale of agency-owned land. Is governed by the 13 members of the Minneapolis City Council. Has the equivalent of about 160 employees.

Neighborhood Revitalization Program:
Was established to combat blight in city neighborhoods. By law, much of its money must be spent on housing-related improvements. Also has financed streetscape, park, school and youth facilities or programs. Is financed by money the MCDA generates through development. Spending priorities are set within each neighborhood. Is governed by a board of about 20 members representing government and community agencies and neighborhoods. Has 15 employees.

"My question is whether this would give the MCDA more of an NRP flavor or the NRP more of an MCDA flavor," said Dan Nordley, an executive committee member at the nonprofit Center for Neighborhoods.

Sayles Belton said her proposal for a citizen board to govern the MCDA rather than a City Council board is designed to change the agency's dynamics.

According to Miller, city officials are drafting ordinances to merge the agencies. But he said putting the NRP out of business would require a vote of four-fifths of the governments represented on its board, including the city, Hennepin County, neighborhoods and other community organizations.

The discussion comes against a backdrop of sniping between Miller and MCDA Executive Director Steve Cramer over what the NRP pays the MCDA for administrative support. Cramer complained recently about Miller's proposed 62 percent cut in the money the NRP pays for services the agency provides, saying it was inadequate to cover the real costs. Miller responded that the payment is voluntary, and that the NRP has paid $2.5 million over the past seven years.

Miller noted that during the NRP's history the MCDA has reimbursed itself another $10.3 million from its development kitty to cover costs it says it incurred because of the NRP. He said the agency also incorrectly charged the NRP close to $13,000 in non-NRP legal bills incurred after a failed redevelopment effort.

Miller said the NRP represents a fundamental challenge to the power of City Hall.

"The problem we've gotten into over the last 30 to 35 years is we've gotten into a system of government that says we're going to do things for you. What NRP did was it shifted some of the control back to the community," he said.

He said one thing he likes to say-although the mayor gets upset with him for saying it- is that "one of the things NRP did was take care of things that government had neglected."

Steve Brandt can be contacted at sbrandt@startribune.com or 612-673-4438.


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