Rybak reorganization is met with skepticism

Steve Brandt, Star Tribune

July 26, 2002

Neighborhood groups are wary of his plan to merge Minneapolis development functions.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is encountering difficulty convincing some of the city's most-ardent neighborhood activists of the wisdom of reorganizing the city's planning and development functions.

The goveming board for the nationally recognized Neighborhood Revitalization Program questioned the mayor this week about the proposal, which would end that program's independence. Members fear neighborhoods will lose some of their ability to determine and fund their priorities.

Rybak, who has made the reorganization his major priority, asked board members to trust him that neighborhoods will gain a bigger role if his plan is adopted.

Skepticism on the part of board members is significant.

A proposal by consultant McKinsey & Co. to abolish the board and fold NRP staff members and functions into the city's larger development and planning efforts can't go ahead without the board's concurrence. The city is only one of five government jurisdictions with a vote on the board's future, and abolishing the board requires the agencies' unanimity.

The NRP board includes representatives picked by neighborhoods and elected officials from those five agencies, among others.

The NRP has funneled city money to programs that reflect priorities set within neighborhoods by citizen volunteers. It began in 1991 as a $400 million, 20-year effort, but the time frame has been stretched because of legislative changes that reduced the tax revenues that finance the program and other city development efforts.

A step forward?

McKinsey has recommended that neighborhoods get seats on a new board intended to oversee broader city development.

Rybak portrays this as a step forward for neighborhoods. He said that their individual plans will help shape City Hall priorities and that neighborhood representatives will vote on close to $200 million annually in city development spending, including housing and downtown development. That's about 10 times the amount the NRP board oversees.

Rybak served a year on the board of the East Harriet Farmstead Neighborhood Association and capitalized on neighborhood discontent with City Hall, especially its development choices, in launching and winning his mayoral campaign. His staff chief, David Fey, who has helped him evangelize for the McKinsey recommendations, headed the Seward neighborhood's nonprofit development arm.

Fey said the proposal would help address neighborhood discontent by shifting financing decisions away from a smaller clique of City Council members toward a strategy in which proposals are evaluated against broadly shared priorities and criteria. He also said that in one North Side meeting on the proposal, residents complained that NRP didn't reflect their priorities.

But a neighborhood delegate to the NRP board, Ron Ravensborg, said the McKinsey proposal leaves him dissatisfied: "NRP is one of most successful and innovative neighborhood participation programs in the country. "

Why, he asked, would the city change it?

Neighborhoods fear a loss of control over money they expect for the program's next phase. Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said she fears neighborhood activists will lose interest if they don't feel they can influence decisions.

The Powderhorn Park neighborhood is farther along than any other in planning for the second phase. It has completed a required neighborhoodwide discussion of how it will spend its next dose of money and will be seeking approval to go ahead with its plan.

But NRP Director Bob Miller said it's hard to know how much such neighborhoods should be given to spend if the program's entire budget isn't firm.

Fey said he's not surprised that the NRP board and also the city's public-housing agency board, which expressed similar skepticism, are resisting the proposals Both operate in a culture of independence, he said.

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


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