Corridors of Opportunity Along the Green Line
Now up and running for two years, the Green Line (formerly called the ‘Central Corridor’) is an 11-mile-long light rail transit (LRT) line connecting the downtowns of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota and a variety of institutions, old and new athletic stadiums and distinct neighborhoods along the way. Early on, planners recognized that this massive transit infrastructure investment had the potential to induce both promise and peril for a number of neighborhoods along the line, half of which were among the poorest and most ethnically diverse in the state.
Central Corridor Funders Collaborative
A set of public, nonprofit and philanthropic partners began to come together around the “corridors of opportunity” that the Green Line presented. This work was started by the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative around the Green Line, but ultimately expanded to other transit corridors in the region with support from HUD through a Sustainable Communities grant. The Collaborative convened the Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, the Metropolitan Council, community development corporations, community based organizations and other partners, and operated as an impartial ombudsman.
Their aim was to anticipate the impacts both during and after construction that the Green Line would have on neighborhoods and small businesses, and to undertake comprehensive community development work along the path where the Green Line was to be constructed. The Funders Collaborative sought to create and implement corridor-wide strategies aimed at ensuring the adjoining neighborhoods, residents and businesses broadly shared in the benefits of public and private investment in the Green Line.
The Funders Collaborative had four main areas of focus:
Access to affordable housing
Strong local economy (workforce; connecting people to construction and permanent jobs)
Vibrant, transit-oriented places (place-making and maintaining the character of individual neighborhoods)
Effective communication and collaboration
Two of the key strategies developed to meet these goals were the Big Picture Project and the Business Resources Collaborative.
The Big Picture Project engaged a wide-range of stakeholders in a process that produced a “Central Corridor Affordable Housing Coordinated Plan” in 2012. The plan aligned existing housing plans along the Green Line and provided a coordinated set of strategies and supporting policies to guide government, community, finance, and development partners toward achieving a range of affordable housing options. Specifically, the Coordinated Plan outlines three objectives:
Invest in the production and preservation of long-term affordable housing.
Stabilize neighborhoods and invest in financial instruments and activities that help low-income people stay in their homes.
Strengthen families through coordinated investments as needs arise (e.g., economic and workforce development.)
Early planning for the Big Picture illuminated that different approaches and strategies would be needed for different market areas along the corridor, and the Collaborative set up a tracking system to monitor and report progress.
The Business Resources Collaborative (BRC) included the Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Metropolitan Council, representatives from various business associations, and several nonprofit technical assistance service providers whose client bases cover the line. A goal of all stakeholders was to minimize the three years of Green Line construction’s impact on businesses, with a particular concern that it might displace small and immigrant-run businesses. So the BRC supported businesses and property owners through this time of challenge, while helping them transition to a changing market post-LRT operation. According to Jonathan Sage-Martinson, the City of Saint Paul’s Department of Planning and Economic Development Director and then Executive Director of the Funders Collaborative, the tag line was: Prepare, Survive (the construction), Thrive (be ready for a new market). The small business community was directly involved in the selection of strategies, through the formal participation of business associations in the BRC. These business associations acted as intermediaries to vet ideas with their members and solicit their direct input. While a dozen programs were implemented by this group, two examples include:
A Forgivable Loan Program of up to $20,000 per business to compensate for revenue loss caused by the construction and cover immediate operations such as salaries and electricity payments. The loans were forgiven 20% each year over five years as long as the business remained in operation along the corridor. Hundreds of small businesses, many of which are owned by first or second generation immigrants, are located along the corridor. In order to overcome language barriers and possible lack of trust on the part of some small businesses (i.e., they had to provide their financials in order to be reimbursed based on actual revenue losses) and to ensure that some of the neediest segments of the community were not left out, each of the two cities developed a consistent program structure and each worked with a local micro-lender/neighborhood developer to help administer the program and do direct, one-to-one outreach to businesses.
A joint marketing campaign to help promote businesses and drive traffic to businesses during the heaviest time of construction. In one unique program a neighborhood development organization launched a new business line to work with shopkeepers and other small businesses to employ “gorilla marketing” strategies. This included activities such as: using a sign up at the front counter to generate a customer email list; producing logos and cheap postcards; setting up websites; and building catering businesses (and other options for remote selling) when business access was impeded by construction.
Throughout the process, the Funders Collaborative remained responsive to needs that arose. A member would articulate a concern that was arising from within a section of the community and offer to convene a group to explore it, and the Collaborative could support the capacity to address the issue. Among the operational rules was that no one entity could make a pitch to the Collaborative unless they had cross-sector support, ensuring that community-driven activity was at the core of the request.
The Collaborative ultimately supported additional economic development activities emerging from the BRC such as support for community-based organizations to help small businesses undertake façade and building improvements. The Collaborative also supported three additional working groups, geared toward increasing economic opportunities for small businesses, minority-owned businesses and residents along the corridor. Other working groups addressed workforce inclusion and greater employment opportunities. Examples include:
The Central Corridor Anchor Partnership is made up of numerous colleges, universities, hospitals, and health care organizations located in proximity to the Green Line. Known colloquially as “Eds and Meds,” these institutions are some of the dominant employers in the area economy and they banded together to improve their collective “backyard.” Together they decided to increase local hiring, local procurement, and transit use among staff, patients, students, and others. Among its initiatives is a fellowship program that helps to connect low-income students with training and jobs by placing college students living within a ½-mile of the rail line in an internship at one of the corridor area hospitals.
The Central Corridor as Cultural Corridor (C4) working group focused on maximizing the unique arts and cultural assets along the Green Line LRT, leveraging these assets to foster economic growth, increase the vitality of station areas as unique destinations and attract additional investment. Six LRT station areas that abut culturally unique community- based districts along the line were selected to leverage arts and culture as a way to maintain a sense of place, belonging, and increased revenue for small minority-owned businesses to remain and thrive there.
The Collaborative was intended as a temporary functional hub for this work, yet it made a final investment to continue tracking the work for ten years in order to measure progress toward concrete goals. The partners also continue to meet and share what they learn.
Significant funding was made available for this initiative, at the outset from a settlement between the Metropolitan Council and the federal government over an environmental impact statement. The consequent directive required that the Council inject more funding into business for mitigation due to construction. Consequently, the Metropolitan Council provided the bulk of money for the forgivable loan program, totaling nearly $3m, as well as $1.2m for the marketing campaign. In total, the Collaborative invested over $12m in community development activities along the corridor.
Since 2011, the Central Corridor Tracker uses a set of indicators to measure change along the Green Line in each of the four focus areas. The effort has made the following progress thus far under the Big Picture Project’s 10-year affordable housing goals:
Five years in, 3,573 (subsidized) affordable units have been built or preserved along the corridor, far exceeding the 10-year baseline goal and a long way toward the expanded goal of 4,500 units by 2020.
Served 968 households (61% of 10-year goal) with efforts to provide resources to help stabilize lower income families in their homes.
Of the 6,388 new housing units built, 1,269 (20%) are designated affordable.
Last year census tracts by poverty and extreme poverty showed a slight reduction along the Corridor, reversing a decade-long trend. With the line operating only two years, preliminary data offer “a promising sign,” said Sage-Martinson.
Under the forgivable loan program, hundreds of loans were distributed, with a high success rate (only 5 defaulted). In addition, there was a net gain of 15 businesses by the time construction had ended.
A key lesson relates to the power of effective multi-stakeholder collaboration. Three years into the effort, with three of the eight working groups up and running, a Stanford Social Innovation Review article about collective impact set off a lightbulb among the Collaborative leaders and provided a helpful framework for the remaining five working groups. Cross-sector work continues to be front and present for the participating communities.
The scale of this effort was unprecedented. “HUD’s Sustainable Communities program and collaborative work with other federal agencies reinforces our ability to deliver this on ground,” said Adriana Abariotes, Executive Director of LISC Twin Cities. “Yet communities must be ready to take advantage of innovative collaborative work from a policy perspective; it requires flexibility and for organizations to be adaptive.”
On the ground, the participating organizations needed to continue to deliver on their own work, so the joint Collaborative agenda placed additional demands on already stretched organizations. Therefore, having philanthropy to add flexible resources and fill the gaps was very helpful—not only in driving change but in bringing people to the table in the first place. Recognizing that the Collaborative would never have enough money to do everything, they nonetheless had the ability to both maximize existing independent local philanthropy around focused goals and to pool resources for a more expanded set of collaborative work products. They also leveraged both national and local intermediaries in multiple ways.
With eight different working groups undertaking different strategies with multiple partners, it was sometimes difficult for people to see the big picture. “The Collaborative always provided progress updates and held an annual event to bring everyone together so each strategy team could learn about other parts of the conversation and understand what others were doing, which gave people a sense of communal effort,” said Emily Stern from the City of Minneapolis’ Community Planning and Economic Development Department. Among the elements that have survived beyond the Collaborative, there are now 100-200 people working in a variety of critical fields that have this formative experience with applicability to their work.
One audience not as deeply connected was the financial services and banking sector. The Collaborative activated banks via their philanthropic model but did not have as much ability to leverage investments. While they have started to see an uptick in private investment such as financial services and private equity, this has not been the case for low-moderate income mortgage finance.
One key obstacle is that there is often insufficient motivation or political will to implement policy changes until drastic changes are visible, i.e., shovels in dirt, and by then the best opportunity has been missed. As Emily Stern put it, “the time to act and motivation to act are often disconnected.” Even under the best of circumstances wherein significant impact to the community is anticipated, there was a lag time between when the Collaborative got information into businesses’ hands (e.g., government contacts and directories of technical assistance providers translated into relevant languages) and when the City started receiving inquiries for resource assistance. Small businesses in particular do not have the bandwidth to pay attention to something that is not imminent. This lag also applies to creating pipelines for employment. “Corridors to careers” often take longer to move through than physical development, so a longer lead time is needed to engage people in job training and certification programs and to create jobs at the end of that process. Based on experiences in other places, an early warning system that tracks specific indicators on the ground can be used to generate motivation to begin implementing changes.
Guidance to Other Communities
While most communities undergoing rapid change will not have this scale of focused infrastructure investment, many communities can maximize investments made, such as with a hospital and its community benefits agreement, and create collaborations that match institutional workforce centers with employee needs. Most critical is selecting the appropriate and effective entity to take on the role of convening the collaborators.
Harnessing programs that already exist in a city and targeting them toward a collective need is also an effective way to tap existing resources where new resources are limited. Engaging intermediary partners who already have relationships in the various sub-communities is critical to pushing out these newly targeted resources and getting them into the hands of the residents and businesses that most need them. And repetitive messaging is critical, as any new engagement will be slow to gain traction.
For questions, contact us at ProsperityPlaybook@hud.gov.