It seemed like a pretty routine matter on the agenda of the Minneapolis City Council. Until it wasn’t routine at all.
Mayor Betsy Hodges wanted the council’s okay for moving ahead with an application to have one of the city’s poorest areas designated a federal Promise Zone, part of a program launched by President Obama during his 2013 state of the union address. Twenty zones across the nation would receive some help — and perhaps some money — to address problems in high-poverty areas.
City administrators has been meeting with groups like the park board, the school district, the University of Minnesota, the housing authority, Met Council and others to build a coordinated attack on unemployment, poor educational outcomes and crime. The proposed zone, in North Minneapolis, includes 38,500 people, more than 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line.
But the council’s Wednesday staff briefing unleashed another round of pent-up frustration from members who represent high-poverty wards, as well as those who have seen such programs come and go with few results.
“I wonder how we can make this the Promises-We-Can’t-Keep-Zone?” asked Council Member Lisa Goodman. She said this zone looked a lot like previous zones encouraged by the federal government to fight poverty: Enterprise Zones and Empowerment Zones. “The only difference to me is that there’s no money attached.”
Promise Zones, of which there are to be 20 across the country, do not receive direct grants but have higher priority for existing federal grants and also get five VISTA volunteers and other federal staff assistance to work on poverty programs.
Chief among the critics was Council President Barbara Johnson, who often complains that city staff talks too much — and acts too little — when it comes to problems in her North Minneapolis ward. Johnson pointed to some of the partners in the project and wondered why they didn’t do more on their own to help North Minneapolis. Parks, for example, could be buying land for parks expansion in her ward, while the housing authority could avoid concentrating Section 8 housing in her ward, and the school district could do more to make sure kids in her ward graduate from high school.
“The University of Minnesota? No kids from North Minneapolis go to the University of Minnesota; they can’t get in,” Johnson said. “Let’s do our job and encourage these other people to do their jobs and maybe we will see something happen. Shame on us.”
Council Member Jacob Frey said the project raised in his mind the difference between talking progressive and acting progressive. Talking progressive, he said, involves meetings and task forces. The city, he said, is “becoming less of a Minneapolis and more of a Meetingopolis.”
Other council members acknowledged the frustrations, but also wondered why the city wouldn’t want to try to win the Promise Zone designation so that it could put the city in a better position to win federal grants.
“I think it would be irresponsible for us to not seek this,” said Council Member Cam Gordon.
Still, the conversation turned so sour that Hodges came into council chambers to try to settle frustrations and sell the project. “I hear and I understand the cynicism and the frustration that people have,” Hodges said. But she said the upsides outweigh the downsides, adding “one of the downsides would be playing into the cynicism and frustration.”
The city has a good shot at winning the designation because it is already taking part in other poverty grant programs, and because the federal government wants more Midwestern cities involved, Hodges said. “If we don’t want to move forward with things in North Minneapolis because we moved forward on so many things that haven’t worked, that’s an argument for doing nothing,” she said. “I don’t want us to do nothing and this is a big something.”
After an hour-long debate in which all 13 council members, plus Hodges, weighed in, the motion passed 11-0. Goodman and Barbara Johnson abstained.