Feds Launch ‘Strong Cities Strong Communities’ to Help Struggling Regions

Last week the Obama administration announced a new effort to help communities better use existing federal dollars to promote community and economic development.

The Strong Cities Strong Communities program aims to help struggling metro regions cut through federal red tape and better leverage local and regional resources to promote growth.

“Over the past two and a half years, the Obama Administration received feedback from leaders all across the country who described the kind of partnership that would be most useful to them for economic growth,” Domestic Policy Director Melody Barnes said in a press release.

“The result is Strong Cities, Strong Communities, an innovative new pilot that will help strengthen local communities while also delivering federal resources and assistance more effectively.”

The Obama administration plans to send federal officials from HUD, the Small Business Administration and the U.S. departments of Labor, Transportation, and Commerce to work in city governments in six identified struggling regions: Detroit, Chester, Pa.; Cleveland; Fresno, Calif.; Memphis, Tenn.; and New Orleans.

Officials plan to provide on-the-ground technical assistance, encourage partnerships with the private sector, nonprofits and foundations, and generally help local officials wade through the “overlapping maze of agencies” and often confusing federal requirements.

One tool they might turn to in helping regions understand their capacity to rebound is BRR’s Resilience Capacity Index. The RCI is designed to help regional officials to better identify their metro area’s  strengths and growth areas as well as vulnerabilities.  It looks to three sets of indicators to determine a metro area’s resilience: regional economic capacity; socio-demographic capacity; and community connectivity.

Data is available for all of the metro areas identified by the program except for Chester, Pa., although Chester is considered part of the Philadelphia metro area, which is included in the RCI.

And while it’s not surprising that most of these regions score low overall on the RCI (the program targeted them for inclusion because they were  struggling), it is notable that both Cleveland and Detroit fare pretty well.

This is generally not how people think of a place like Detroit or even Cleveland, both of which have been hit hard by the economic downturn population loss. And indeed, these economic and socio-demographic changes are reflected in the low scores both cities received in regional economic capacity.

But both cities have a relatively high community connectivity score, which boosts their rankings on the index overall. Detroit ranks 159th out of 361 metro regions, earning it a score of “medium” resilience capacity and Cleveland ranks 132nd, earning it a score of “high.”

The high community connectivity score indicates that both of these regions have strong civic organizations, well-connected residents, and generally a more stable community.

Federal and local officials should take note. These numbers indicate that perhaps there is some untapped potential and an opportunity to build on the existing social capital and civic participation in Cleveland and Detroit to improve their capacity to respond to stress and to revitalize their communities.

Fresno, on the other hand ranks near the bottom of the index in all three areas, with an overall resilience ranking of 344 out of 361, earning a score of “very low” resilience capacity. The city has been severely hurt by the housing crisis and has been trying for years to revive downtown, expand industrial businesses and develop better transportation.

The city is hoping to turn this around with federal help. Glenda Humiston, Department of Agriculture director of rural development in California, told The Fresno Bee last week that one of the areas of emphasis will be to develop a stronger connection between Fresno County’s farms and the Southern California market to “open the door to new businesses for packaging and delivering farm products.” They also hope to improve crime and restore blighted neighborhoods.

Overall federal officials hope to work with local governments to help create jobs, improve health care and transportation and increase educational opportunities. If successful, officials hope to expand the program to other cities.

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