“We do not want to neglect or ignore our underserved population,” said Gwendolyn Tillotson, deputy director of the Department of Economic Development in Houston, Texas. “Rather, Mayor Sylvester Turner and his new administration have made it very clear that it is important for us to be smart and equitable in how we use our resources — to ensure that every community has an opportunity to have access to a good education, to good work opportunities, and to build wealth.”
Last week, Tillotson and two other representatives from Houston traveled to Portland, Oregon, to attend the opening retreat of the Equitable Economic Development Fellowship, a two-year, $1 million effort from the National League of Cities (NLC), PolicyLink, and the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to help equity, transparency, sustainability, and community engagement become driving forces in local economic development efforts. Six cities were chosen to participate in the inaugural year of the fellowship: Boston, Charlotte, Houston, Memphis, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis.
While in Portland, each city team identified particular equity challenges to focus on during the course of the fellowship. Tillotson said that Houston is looking to prioritize social and economic equity in the implementation of the economic development components of Plan Houston, the city’s first-ever general plan. And in 2010, the city began proactively using the Department of Economic Development as a resource for the private sector and the city’s smaller communities.
“Historically, many communities have not seen the benefits of local government economic development policies and programs,” said Jess Zimbabwe, director of the Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use at NLC and ULI. “It isn’t difficult to find examples in cities and states around the country where local governments have particularly shortchanged people of color, immigrants, and low-income neighborhoods.”
During the fellowship, cities will receive support, leadership development, and technical assistance from NLC, PolicyLink, and ULI — in addition to peer-learning opportunities — to address diversity and inclusion challenges. Another class of six cities will be invited to participate in the second year of the program in 2017.
“The fellowship is a real opportunity to learn from equity experts and our peer cities,” said Martha Brown, deputy commissioner of the Department of City Development in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The city owns a large portfolio of distressed commercial buildings in neighborhoods with few employment and small-business opportunities. The city is looking to position that inventory to maximize opportunity for start-up small developers and entrepreneurs. “With the help of staff from NLC, PolicyLink, and ULI, we hope to create a model for ownership, renovation, and management of these buildings, and develop a pipeline of entrepreneur tenants,” added Brown.
“We see the equitable economic development fellowship as an opportunity to evaluate and improve practices,” she continued, “so city government plays a positive role in growing prosperity among all its residents.”
“Cities are recognizing that creating equitable and sustainable economic prosperity for all should be the goal of their activities across the board,” said Angela Glover Blackwell, PolicyLink president and CEO. "We are excited to be working with economic development leaders who are eager to integrate an equity approach into their efforts to grow strong local economies."