All posts in “Featured”

The White House Acknowledges the 10,000 Communities Initiative


President Biden is leading an economic revitalization effort that prioritizes the middle class and underserved communities. His “Investing in America” agenda offers an unprecedented opportunity for states, territories, Tribal nations, and local governments to make transformative investments in infrastructure, clean energy, and climate resilience. 


To ensure that the full advantages of the Biden-Harris Administration’s “Investing in America” agenda reach the communities and regions that require them most, it demands a collaborative effort not solely from the federal government but also from diverse non-federal entities. Much of this progress would not be achievable without the substantial contributions of philanthropic organizations, which have stepped forward to aid states and local communities in implementing this unique investment opportunity. 


HR&A Advisors collaborated with the Milken Institute to support the 10,000 Communities Initiative, which aims to connect 10,000 high-need urban, rural, and tribal communities with the capital, capacity, and talent required to secure and deploy federal climate and infrastructure funding. The Milken Institute’s Community Infrastructure Center platform and our Infrastructure Funding Navigator connects community project sponsors to federal and non-federal funding sources and project readiness tools to help communities develop loan-worthy, grant-worthy and investment-ready projects.   


This resource aids communities in developing projects that are eligible for loans, grants, and investments. This initiative facilitates effective access to new federal funding for communities and organizes regional events across the United States to advance project pipelines.


Philanthropy has historically played a pivotal role in promoting climate action and providing vital support such as capacity-building, technical guidance, and direct assistance to nonprofit organizations and marginalized communities. As seen by our work above philanthropic efforts are creating fresh perspectives and resources to support communities in accessing and utilizing federal infrastructure funding.  


Learn more about our work and partners on the CIC and at the 10k Initiative here


Read the full white house report here 

HR&A Advisors congratulates Principal Jane Carlson on her appointment to the Griffith Park Board


HR&A Advisors congratulates Principal Jane Carlson on her appointment to the Griffith Park Board! Jane will apply her deep understanding of municipal finance and economic development strategies to support the Board’s mission to enhance the quality of life in Los Angeles by providing attractive, safe, and well-maintained parks with diverse opportunities to serve and enrich every community. 


She hopes her impact can further establish an accessible, dynamic, and sustainable park system for all Angelenos and visitors to play, learn, connect with the natural world, and build community.


To read more about the Griffith Park Board follow this link. 

Partner Shuprotim Bhaumik and Director Jamison Dague take a deeper dive into Long Island’s Blue Economy


Newsday Media Group’s nextLI engaged HR&A Advisors to create an in-depth analysis of the region’s long-term economic outlook through a scenario that envisions an emergent ocean-based economy. HR&A Partner Shuprotim Bhaumik and Director Jamison Dague launched their report “Long Island’s Emergent Blue Economy”, at a panel discussion. The report examined how a Blue Economy ecosystem can benefit many industries and enhance the prosperity of Long Island in the coming decades.  


The report outlines how leveraging Long Island’s Blue Economy and investing in this economic sector and evolving existing policies could add more than 60,000 jobs by 2051 and approximately 35% of jobs in the sector paid between $90,300 and $105,700 per year, on average, in 2021. 


“We see an opportunity for Long Island to create a lot of good-paying jobs, to address the existential threat of climate change by cleaning up our waterways and increasing economic output and tax revenue.”, said Shuprotim Bhaumik in his interview with James Madore. In addition to reviewing Long Island’s economic growth, HR&A examined regional economies centered around water activity, forecasting employment for key industries, and interviewing stakeholders to determine interventions and quantify their economic and fiscal effects.  


Read the full report and learn more about the findings and recommendations at NewsDay’s website.  

Empire State Development Releases Report Outlining First Year Accomplishments of the Office of Strategic Workforce Development


Last Year, Governor Kathy Hochul announced an historic investment of $350 million for workforce development and the creation of the Office of Strategic Workforce Development (OSWD) within New York State’s economic development agency, Empire State Development (ESD). This investment represented a decisive shift toward a state workforce development strategy that is laser-focused on connecting New Yorkers to quality, in-demand jobs in the state’s fastest-growing industries. Empire State Development (ESD) contracted HR&A, in partnership with Jobs for the Future (JFF), to support the development of a comprehensive statewide strategy for the newly established Office of Strategic Workforce Development (OSWD).   


HR&A and JFF worked with ESD leadership to establish priorities and build consensus with a multitude of internal and external stakeholders, analyze statewide economic and employment trends and existing workforce strategies; develop prioritized strategies and best practices; and establish clear metrics for success that can both guide prospective grantees in their programming and provide a platform for OSWD to ensure the state’s workforce development ecosystem has maximum impact.  


To guide its investment, OSWD  identified 7 statewide high-growth target industries representing New York’s most critical growth sectors and additional regional priority sectors. 


    1. Advanced Manufacturing and Materials: R&D-driven manufacturing such as the production of electrical equipment, computers, and machinery as well as processing of glass, metals, chemicals, and minerals.  
    2.  Biotech and Life Sciences: Industries that research, develop, and manufacture health care products and equipment and pharmaceuticals.  
    3.  Cleantech and Renewable Energy: Industries that generate, transmit, and store clean energy; manufacture the key components for clean energy generation; and retrofit buildings and infrastructure to incorporate modern technology.  
    4. Construction: Industries related to the construction of buildings, civil engineering, and specialty trades. 
    5. Electronics and Optics, Photonics, and Imaging (OPI): Computer, electronics, and chemical manufacturing industries (including semiconductor manufacturing) as well as related professional services.  
    6. Film and TV Production and Post-Production: Motion picture, television, sound recording, and other industries involved in video and audio production and post-production.  
    7. Software and Digital Media: Software development, data processing, information services, and telecommunication (including broadband) industries. 


ESD’s Office of Strategic Workforce Development released their annual report highlighting the significant strides made towards creating a more robust and inclusive workforce in New York State. Over the past six months, OSWD published three grant programs and has disbursed $13 million dollars in funding across New York to 22 innovative training programs in the first two rounds of its grantmaking process. These resources will help train more than 6,600 New Yorkers for more than 200 businesses and industry partners. 


See ESD’s press release announcing the report here. You can read the full report and learn more about the findings and recommendations here.

How to win a $63 million federal grant as a first-time applicant

Written by Kate Wittels and Giacomo Bagarella


The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs and Inflation Reduction Acts present communities with once-in-a-generation opportunities to pursue federal funding. Historically, communities with more resources or experience navigating the complexities of the federal funding landscape have had greater success. Politics also plays a major role in decision-making. Both facts, along with a lack of equity-driven thinking in the design of these programs has reinforced long-standing inequities.


We have shared federal funding success stories from HR&A’s clients in previous features, but working with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a non-profit economic development organization active in southwestern Pennsylvania, was perhaps the single most exciting instance of disrupting this status quo. In early September, the Economic Development Administration (EDA) announced that the Allegheny Conference and southwestern Pennsylvania were one of only 21 Build Back Better Regional Challenge (BBBRC) awardees and one of only five that received over $60 million.


Our work supporting clients pursuing federal funding opportunities suggests the critical importance of having tools and processes to simplify the complexity. Even trying to identify programs for which you are eligible can deter organizations that haven’t engaged in the process before; our recently launched Infrastructure Funding Navigator helps with that particular challenge. In Allegheny Conference’s case, a dynamic impact model and a robust application management strategy were keys to success winning the federal funding game.


Although the Allegheny Conference had the support of the community and was well-positioned to lead the effort, it had never submitted a federal grant application before. It brought on HR&A to support the effort, because as Vera Krekanova, Chief Strategy & Research Officer put it, “HR&A had the tools, lived experience, and internal organization to understand how to navigate the federal funding process.”


At the conclusion of the effort, Allegheny Conference leaders, including the organization’s CEO Stefani Pashman, sat down with us to reflect on what drove success.


Identify the problem and envision a unifying solution that will have lasting impacts for all.


The 11-county southwestern Pennsylvania region is home to 2.7 million people, one in five Pennsylvanians. Like 12 other former coal and industrial communities that received BBBRC grants, southwestern Pennsylvania has struggled to recover from the decline of those industries. With major employment loss came significant population loss — particularly in rural counties.


To address these issues, Allegheny Conference developed a proposal to rebuild a knowledge-driven economy that will transform assets into a system to benefit everyone within the region. In the view of Conference leadership, this twin focus on systems and equity helped them secure one of the largest BBBRC grants and funding for all five of their proposed projects.


Within the region, energy, healthcare, and advanced manufacturing are recognized strengths. HR&A worked with the Allegheny Conference to identify a unifying economic driver that would build on these strengths, improve opportunities for a diversity of communities, and leverage world-class research and development at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and other local institutions. As a result of a robust community engagement process, Allegheny Conference leadership identified an opportunity to “supercharge the … globally recognized robotics and autonomy cluster and ensure that its economic benefits equitably reach rural and coal-impacted communities,” thereby improving the lives of nearly 15,000 workers.


Erect a big tent and invite your community in, building a vision together without diluting its impact.


The Allegheny Conference started by leveraging its existing connections to bring more than 90 public, private, philanthropic, labor, education, and economic development stakeholders together for regular conversations. The application’s focus on robotics and autonomous mobility emerged from these conversations.


We began with a discussion of how establishment of a unifying theme that could demonstrably benefit every coalition member would strengthen the application. In these early conversations, it became clear that everyone — from farmers to pharmacists — could benefit from the adoption of robotics. While funding for research and development was critical to make sure ideas emerging from educational partners turned into companies, it was equally important to ensure that regional businesses were ready to be customers of these robotic technologies and that the local workforce was able to use robotics and had the skills to help scale the robotic companies themselves. The overarching vision that emerged was of a focus on the entire supply chain rather than one aspect, which would have narrowed the impact to a single party, geographic community, or stakeholder type.



Create an application management plan.


We needed a system for efficient decision-making. HR&A recommended core principles for application management that the Allegheny Conference relied on throughout the process:


  1. Inform everyone
  2. Bring together local experts
  3. Be open to feedback
  4. Make sure you have people who call the shots
  5. Inform everyone again


Allegheny Conference and HR&A supported the stakeholder coalition, developing templates for members to develop BBBRC-compliant programs, which would later be synthesized and summarized in the application. Among the tools we developed for coalition members preparing these program descriptions was a cost-benefit model to evaluate relative impact if money were reduced or added to a specific project. Another tool developed for coalition members was a prompt to facilitate consideration of the rationale for each project and the role it would play in equitable, systemic change.


The Allegheny Conference also assigned tasks and responsibilities, pushing as much content drafting as possible to local experts, while retaining management of the overall process, narrative, and quality control.


With consistent communication and adherence to the application management plan, the Allegheny Conference built trust across the coalition. This proved critical when amendments to the proposal were required by EDA in the final stages of the award process.


Translate federal priorities and principles so they make sense to your local stakeholders. 


The Allegheny Conference recognized how important it was for the entire coalition — not just the applicant — to speak EDA’s language. EDA’s articulated priorities differed somewhat from past federal funding opportunities, requiring proposals that offered “transformational investments to develop and strengthen regional industry clusters…while embracing equitable economic growth, creating good-paying jobs, and enhancing U.S. global competitiveness.”


The Allegheny Conference and HR&A identified five projects that could transform the region’s robotics, automation, and manufacturing economy and aligned with EDA priorities, including closing “not just racial and ethnic, but also geographic” equity gaps, and then wove them together, both in the imaginations of project sponsors and in the application narrative, advancing a theory of change that relied on the five projects functioning as an integrated regional system. As Allegheny Conference CEO Stefani Pashman said, this win “will bring renewed vitality to our 11-county region and enhance opportunities for a wide band of people, businesses and places in ways we have not seen before. These projects are designed to open doors to anyone who wants to participate in the region’s thriving robotics cluster. This includes expanded opportunities for women and people of color, as well as provide geographic equity throughout the region.”


Presentation of the projects as an integrated system enabled both the coalition and EDA to see the importance of funding the entire package and the tradeoffs if one or more projects were not funded. EDA ultimately funded all five projects — distinguishing the submission from many others, where EDA funded only one or two. The Allegheny Conference proved that with the right tools and a well-considered framework for impact, even organizations that have never played before can win the federal funding game.


Images courtesy of Allegheny Conference.

What Does the Future Look like for Post-COVID Downtowns?


What Does the Future Look like for Post-COVID Downtowns?

Written by Candace Damon


We have been wondering how the diversity of cities in which we work are innovating and adapting to the new reality of hybrid work. Specifically, we were curious if the civic leaders with whom we’ve worked on downtown revitalization in some parts of the country had lessons to share with their counterparts in other regions. Below, we invite you to read responses from nine private developers, city officials, business improvement district heads, and other civic leaders. Here are the key takeaways:

    • Cities that have committed to the long-term project of building mixed-use downtowns with a strong residential presence are bullish on their future. This is a theme that runs through the narratives from Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Philadelphia, and Arlington (VA). The corollary is also true: cities like Vancouver are seeing the development of commercial product in formerly residential neighborhoods. These market developments will clearly have implications for long-term public policy with respect to, at least, transit investment and zoning.
    • Some of the currently most successful real estate products respond directly to the requirements of hybrid work. While demand remains soft for many conventional commercial and residential products in many markets, hybrid products that address the requirements of hybrid work are succeeding in cities that welcome experimentation. For instance, in Fort Lauderdale, commercial spaces that offer high-end residential amenities like dog runs are leasing strongly. Similar kinds of successful experiments with hybrid space usage are reported in Chattanooga. We wrote about the potential for this kind of development in an earlier issue and are intrigued to see it coming to pass.
    • Other kinds of experimentation with space reusage offer opportunities to improve equitable outcomes. A Portland real estate leader notes the potential of obsolete, small-floorplate office buildings for conversion to affordable housing. An Amarillo friend writes about successful reuse of a variety of obsolete and underutilized spaces to foster innovation and workforce development in that city’s core strength in meat production.
    • Investment in the public realm can do triple duty — improving equitable outcomes, boosting private commercial returns, and building residential demand.  That’s the view of clients and colleagues in New York City, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Chattanooga, and Arlington (VA). For AJARR’s readers with a passion for parks and open space, that is welcome — if unsurprising — news and ought to be part of the narrative we advance in our work.

    Please reach out if any of these experiences resonate with you, or if you want to share other lessons from the contemporary downtown experience.



Fort Lauderdale

Jenni Morejon, President & CEO

Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority

Three pillars are driving Downtown Fort Lauderdale’s (FTL) successful evolution: a strong pipeline of residential development; offices that blend the line between living and working; and investments in public space.


More than 6,000 new residents moved to Downtown FTL in the past two years. The population growth—80% since 2010—created a healthy balance of residential and commercial uses. While most city centers largely made up of office buildings went dark during the height of covid, Fort Lauderdale thrived.


Traditional offices in FTL are now competing with unique amenities in new residential developments, from outdoor terraces to dog runs. This healthy competition requires new offices to up their game and blend the line between living and working, which in turn attracts new talent and the companies hiring them to Downtown Fort Lauderdale.


Quality places for the entire community to gather outdoors are key to an equitable future. For example, the reimagining of Huizenga Park in Downtown FTL will transform a vacant large outdoor event space into a highly activated park.


By prioritizing new residential growth, blending the line between living and working, and investing in accessible public spaces, cities can reenergize traditional central business districts towards a more vibrant and resilient future.


Pacific Northwest

Pat Callahan, Founder and Chief Executive Officer

Urban Renaissance Group LLC

Adaptive re-use is one of the most powerful tools we have for revitalizing the public realm and commercial business districts in a post-Covid world. The most immediate action item for local and state government in this new environment is to encourage change in use from older small floor plate office buildings into affordable residential units, close to services and jobs. Small floor plate office buildings can easily be converted to small residential apartment units and Single Room Occupancy (SRO) formats, if regulatory obstacles are removed. In fact, governments should provide subsidies to encourage these conversions through incentives, including low interest loans. We have a housing affordability crisis, and we need to get serious to solve it. This will address affordability and urban vitality at the same time. Single room occupancy should also be encouraged.


Experimental retail in the urban core should also be encouraged. For example, Urban Renaissance Group is currently reimagining Portland’s Lloyd Center — once the largest mall in the world, which “Portlanders had left for dead.” With a new master plan and tenanting strategy, Urban Renaissance Group is proud to engage in this iconic project turning around.


New York City

Celine Armstrong, ASLA, LEED AP, Chief Development Officer

Fifth Avenue

New York City has a rich and beautiful history of adapting and innovating during moments of uncertainty, struggle, and crisis. Case in point, during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, the city’s people reclaimed their streets as well as the city’s underutilized spaces. While this is nothing new to many New Yorkers, it became a citywide reality, taking on a brand-new energy with people of all ages and economic status demanding—and creating—more spaces for outdoor activities.


People need to be around other people and thanks to these new spaces, New Yorkers were able to truly appreciate the pedestrian-friendly environment. The city quickly adapted several different areas, finding room for outdoor classes, eateries, and more. As with several European cities, the parts of the city that embraced these changes became more vibrant and their stores and restaurants lived to see another month.


Fortunately, city leadership has supported efforts like Open Streets and there is now enough data available to know that an investment in the public realm not only leads to an increase in revenue for local business, but also increases quality of life in a way that people want to return to the reimagined business districts.


Jacksonville, Florida

Jake Gordon, CEO

Downtown Vision Inc, Jacksonville Florida

Like all cities, we’re still adjusting to the “new normal” in Jacksonville, Florida. We as city builders need to continue to focus on what’s important — the people that make our urban centers great. In Jax, we have focused on supporting existing tenants, and adding residents, both valuable and effective strategies.


Still the effects of pandemic were substances. In Downtown and citywide, our office market is experiencing record levels of available and vacant space[1]. However, direct asking rates have not only surpassed pre-Covid levels, but they have actually reached record highs[2]. Talk about a new normal! Downtown covers less than one percent of Jacksonville, but it’s home to a third of Jacksonville’s office inventory and so most affected with changes brought on by increased remote work.


Yet these negative effects from the pandemic are balanced out in Jacksonville by both a huge increase in relocations to North Florida and ongoing diversification of who is coming Downtown. Sustained growth has actually led to an overall increase in street traffic Downtown. Plus, in the past five years, we here in “DTJax” have focused on adding residents and have doubled that number over the past decade. If all the development projects in the current pipeline are built, the number of residents will double again, reaching more than 16,000 people. Meanwhile, the City and our Downtown Investment Authority is investing heavily in waterfront activation, parks, and bike and pedestrian trails to provide unique amenities to enhance the quality of life and recruit business and talent.


Downtown Jacksonville is on the rise! All of these statistics come from our new State of Downtown Jacksonville Report 2022, to be released soon at


[1] 2022 Q2; 26.1% vacancy rate in Downtown, 19.8% in Jacksonville overall

[2] 2022 Q2 Average Lease Rates: $22.96 for Downtown, $21.94 for Jacksonville overall


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Prema Katari Gupta, Executive Director
Central Philadelphia Development Corporation and Vice President for Parks and Public Realm

In Philadelphia, office-to-residential conversion is not a new concept. A quarter-century of successful conversions of old office buildings, while new ones have been added, has yielded a highly diversified downtown with one of the country’s largest residential populations. Today, foot traffic on Center City sidewalks is approaching pre-pandemic levels, despite the fact that only 52% of office workers have returned, typically only three days per week. Residents, and increasingly tourists, have animated streets and generated economic activity that has insulated downtown retail and restaurants from a more pronounced downturn. Demand from residents and visitors for parks, shopping, museums, and theater will sustain the amenities that entice more office workers downtown.


A diversified downtown brings together people from across the income and socioeconomic spectrum. Compelling research from Raj Chetty has demonstrated that meaningful cross-class connections boost individual economic mobility more than anything else. As regions become more politically polarized, neighborhoods sort by demographics, and social media displaces eye contact, downtowns remain places where everyone can come together and share space, making downtowns a key accelerant of upward mobility and a pathway to the American Dream.



Chattanooga, Tennessee

Emily Mack, President & CEO

River City Company

What happens when you combine a pandemic with a city that has been voted “Best Outdoor City” twice and offers the world’s fastest community-wide internet through their local municipal utility, EPB? It welcomes a flood of new residents and companies along with recognition as “PC Mag’s 2021 #1 remote-working town.” Since 1986, River City Company has led downtown redevelopment projects, which have been replicated across the United States, including a renowned riverfront featuring large-scale festivals, billions of dollars generated from tourism and a renewed focus on emphasizing creating an atmosphere for residents first.


Today, organizations like River City Company are needed more than ever. As Chattanooga continues to evolve, River City Company serves as the convener and works with companies to transform single-use spaces like offices and surface level parking lots into dynamic spaces geared toward improving social interactions, new housing types and connections to culture. By no means does this mean the “traditional office” is dead. In fact, Steam Logistics, who was just ranked #254 on the Inc. 5000 list of America’s Fastest Growing Companies, is renovating a decades vacant downtown building to welcome 400 employees to their new headquarters.


For those returning to the office, some are expecting more from it. green|spaces just announced embarking upon a “Living Building Challenge” with the goal of a creating a health-conscious community hub that is net positive water and energy. History has shown us that downtowns can be resilient, but only if the residents and businesses are willing to take steps to evolve and transform. Chattanooga, where the streetlights were once set to blink after 5pm, is a shining beacon in the South that has proven through strong private/public partnerships, innovation, adaptiveness, and a bit of grit, you can create a city where all can thrive.


Arlington, Virginia

Tracy Gabriel, President/Executive Director

National Landing

COVID has changed the landscape for downtowns and central business districts. Locations that foster a mix of uses, welcome inclusive growth, invest in open spaces, provide regulatory flexibility for reuse, and embrace innovation will be best primed to succeed in building a more resilient, competitive, and equitable market.


Seek Balance. The pandemic exposed the economic vulnerabilities of office-dominated downtown districts. In National Landing, a growing downtown and innovation district in Arlington, VA just outside DC, we have learned the importance of a balanced mix of uses — including housing and open space — for a competitive district. Our nearly 1:1 ratio of workers to residents has buoyed the area and fostered a vibrant, active streetscape. Increasing housing, including committed affordable housing and adaptive reuse of vacant space, is key to building an equitable future, especially amid affordability pressures.


Innovation Mindset. To tackle vacancies/reuse, we are keeping our sights set in National Landing on embracing innovation, digital infrastructure, technological advances, and sustainability as key to evolving our future. We are building on the assets of major employers and educational institutions, like Amazon, Boeing and Virginia Tech, to pilot technology, enhance mobility, and support workforce development to cultivate talent for an inclusive ecosystem.


Vancouver, British Columbia

Katie Maslechko, Director of Development


As a city challenged with extreme issues of affordability, the greatest lesson the Metro Vancouver region stands to take away is to embrace that “traditional” doesn’t look the way it used to, and that this new reality has accelerated a new definition of commercial business districts.


Across the region, Vancouver’s past decade of transit expansion created half a dozen neighborhoods with unique cultural and ethnic identities, each at a scale and mix of uses to rival the traditional commercial business district in downtown Vancouver. Prior to COVID, while many of these neighborhoods built more affordable communities focused on providing housing options, residents still commuted to the traditional commercial business district for jobs and services. All of that that changed after COVID.


This new reality has shifted, so instead of these neighborhoods being miles away from the urban core, they have spread new services, investments, and jobs across this diverse region. It has created a fundamental shift in equity and access across Metro Vancouver that must remain as much as a focus as the reenergizing of our “traditional” commercial business district.


Amarillo, Texas

Matt Garner, PhD, Scientist/Founder


Amarillo is located five hours from larger cities like Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Denver, and is unofficially considered the capital of the Texas/Oklahoma Panhandles. Located in flyover country, our region produces 30% of the nation’s beef and 100% of its nuclear warheads, resulting in expertise critical to food and national security.


To serve regional stakeholders, Amarillo developed initiatives that converted physically and intellectually vacant space to fill in workforce and technological “knowledge gaps.” Considerable local resources were allocated establishing: i) a technically-dedicated high school (AmTech) in an abandoned warehouse, ii) a Community College Center for Technical Upskilling (Innovation Outpost) in a vacant community center and iii) an EDC stimulated Beef and Dairy “Global Food Hub” aimed at resource alignment & re-branding the area as a “Technological Oasis” serving our current businesses’ technological and workforce needs in an unrented downtown storefront.


These ideas were manifested into physical spaces while COVID shut down physical collaboration and work across the country; meanwhile, Amarilloans continued working & making food.


Many small/mid-sized cities would be well-served to lean into their authentic identity & expertise by creating physical spaces to strengthen the areas where they are already global leaders and formally creating their own “Centers of Excellence.”

Challenging the Systems That Perpetuate Racism: A Case for Public Banking

Written by Andrea Batista Schlesinger and Mary Jiang
City leaders are being called upon to use the power they have to make systemic changes. One power examined far too infrequently comes in the form of the billions of dollars that flow through city coffers and then through the commercial banks that manage local government transactions. The actions of commercial banks shape cities and their economies more than any mayor’s economic development policy. Historically, these actions have reinforced White ownership and Black poverty.
The relationship between banking and inequity consistently surfaces in our work. For example, the average loan approval rate for White business owners is 19% higher than for Black business owners and only 49% of Black-owned firms survived the past recession, compared to 60% of White-owned firms. As Black protestors have argued in response to the looting that has coincided with the peaceful protests of George Floyd’s murder at the knees of police, “[These buildings are] not ours. We don’t own anything. We don’t own anything.”
The lack of Black ownership, even in Black communities, is not a coincidence. The role of private finance in the perpetuation of racial disparity did not end with redlining—race and racism remain encoded in seemingly neutral concepts, such as financial “opportunity” and “risk.” The wholesale purchase of financially distressed homes in low-income Black communities presents an “opportunity.” Yet Black and Latinx households are less likely to qualify for conventional mortgages than White applicants even when controlling for income and loan size, because they pose a greater “risk.” Predatory lending to Black communities presents an “opportunity.” Yet because of historical and structural bias amounting to perceived “risk,” Black and Latinx entrepreneurs receive lower levels of conventional business financing, are discouraged from entering capital markets, and are underrepresented in business ownership.
These patterns intensify in the aftermath of natural and economic disasters. In the Paycheck Protection Program’s first round, businesses owned by people of color were disproportionately and functionally excluded from federal aid because they did not have relationships, or large payrolls, with mainstream banking institutions. Only 12% of Black and Latino business owners who applied for COVID-19 relief aid from the Small Business Administration reported receiving what they had asked for. These barriers have had lasting effects on the second round of funding, compounding the challenges of recovery. Despite these gaps in service, banks have profited from being the only options for their services: in the PPP’s first round alone, banks earned $10 billion in fees for processing essentially zero-risk loans with reduced vetting requirements.
We cannot make cities more equitable until we confront the role of private capital in perpetuating racism. As banking reform advocate Ameya Pawar argues, every decision a bank makes to lend or not lend, invest or not invest, serve or not serve, amounts to an economic development policy. Cities can influence these decisions by committing to full transparency about the accounts they hold with commercial banks, leveraging the scale of their accounts to influence commercial banks to reform lending practices, diverting public funds to local and regional banks and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) that meet the gaps left by large commercial banks, and providing essential technical assistance to build financial capacity in underserved communities.
Beyond these steps, some have urged local governments to create an alternative to commercial banking altogether by depositing government funds in, and processing their transactions through, public banks that are owned and operated by cities or states, oriented toward the public good, and directly accountable to publicly elected bodies. In the U.S., advocates have argued that public banks could serve as alternatives to commercial banks while collaborating with mission-aligned financial institutions such as local banks, credit unions, and CDFIs. Public banks could resist the prevailing risk/return principles defined by private loan terms to drive low-interest loans and investments in Black and Brown communities that have been disqualified from the most basic levels of financial support.
We have begun to explore how public banking might work in cities across the country. We evaluated the feasibility of a public bank for the City of Seattle and are currently doing so for the City of Philadelphia. In Seattle, the primary motivation to explore an alternative to commercial banking was to divest from Wells Fargo, which had been instrumental in funding the Dakota Access Pipeline. In Philadelphia, where we estimated a small business lending gap far greater than any suite of public programs could fill and where only 5% of bank and credit union branches are located in low-income, majority-minority neighborhoods, city leaders are interested in addressing deeply entrenched, racialized poverty by seeing how their dollars could leverage investment in local businesses that would create local jobs.
Setting up public banks is not easy, and while advocates for public banks inspire us to think boldly, oversimplifying the feasibility of establishing such institutions will not advance racial and economic equity. The credit rating agencies emerged powerfully from the 1970s’ urban fiscal crises to limit government risk, effectively exerting a stranglehold on city spending and making it difficult for cities to secure the initial dollars to capitalize a bank. The heralded Bank of North Dakota, the country’s longest running and most successful public bank, took 30 years to become profitable and owes much of its initial momentum to the state’s agriculture and oil industries. Many jurisdictions, particularly cities, are fighting for a public bank in fundamentally different economies. The U.S. still lacks a precedent for a City-owned public bank, and many cities face state-level preemption challenges and limited scale of deposits, compared to state counterparts.
Local, state, and federal banking policy change will be necessary to facilitate the creation of public banks. Change is necessary because we are committed to helping cities become less dependent on private actors, such that they have a choice about how to conduct business in ways that are consistent with their values. In this way, we see our ongoing public banking work as a way of advancing the autonomy and creativity of municipal governments, and the possibility of those who live in cities to hold them accountable. Which is to say, the case for public banks is as much about supporting the use of banking powers in the public interest and challenging a commercial banking system that has profoundly failed—at scale—to move capital to advance racial and economic justice, as it is about actually setting up such banks. Perhaps even the rhetorical threat of a public bank might inspire commercial banks to embrace an anti-racist future for the cities they serve. If it doesn’t, more and more cities will begin to take their financial power elsewhere.

Rethinking Economic Development

Our industry must embrace racial equity and shared prosperity as its core mission

I have spent much of my career working with local governments to shape inclusive economic development policy. The events of the past month have caused me to question traditional approaches to economic development, even the most progressive. A seismic shift is required for the economic development profession to contribute to ending systemic racism rather than continuing to perpetuate it.
Written by Cary Hirschstein
Most state and local governments deploy economic development resources to attract new jobs and secure capital investment. The term “trickle-down economics” has typically been reserved for federal economic policy, but most state and local economic development regimes follow a similar formula: we assume that if we grow the economy, we will generate opportunity for all and/or expand fiscal resources to support communities in need. Cities seek to attract high-wage jobs because they will pay higher taxes and drive greater spending within the local economy. This approach is built on a faulty premise: that growth yields equitable prosperity.
Economic development policy has transformed the American city while deepening racial divides. The core visions, initiatives, and tools of economic development have facilitated the return of investment to our downtowns, creating vibrant places where talent wants to be and businesses want to grow. At the same time, the imperative to “build on strength” tends to steer resources to White neighborhoods and central business districts. Prior to recently enacted policy changes, we found that parcels in one affluent, predominantly White neighborhood in Columbus, OH were three times more likely to have received property tax abatements than a comparison set of less affluent, predominantly Black communities. In Houston, 10% of the city’s property tax base is collected within its 26 Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones (TIRZ). The four wealthiest TIRZs combined retain more tax increment than the remaining 22, which they are able to reinvest locally. Studies examining federal expenditures to promote economic mobility show that benefits accrue predominantly to middle- and higher income households and limit intergenerational mobility for low- and moderate-income families.
Equitable prosperity is not a core mission of most “economic development” departments; rather it is the domain of “community development” entities. Although some cities have begun to merge community and economic development functions, they remain for the most part siloed. Economic development functions are generally better resourced than community development. Programs like workforce development and small business support that don’t involve headline-garnering, multimillion-dollar deals are often shunted to the margins of agency hierarchies.
Economic development professionals must embrace creation of shared prosperity and an equitable economy as core missions. Some City-led economic development departments have begun to employ equity as a primary lens for evaluation and deployment of their resources. We need to ensure these practices become the norm across the country, but also that they go far deeper to disrupt systemic racism. While we continue to invest in the renewal of our cities, we must also ask: who do our investments benefit, and how can those benefits be more equitably distributed? I offer five responses:

  1. Shift resources to investments that promote racial equity. Cities should view their economic development expenditures and assets as an investment portfolio, a primary objective of which is to create more equitable local economies. Realizing this objective will require a close examination of the beneficiaries of past investments; a deliberate shift in target recipients, geographies, and tools deployed to reach them; and far greater transparency and accountability for the deployment of resources. The potential impact is immense. A 2016 New York Times study estimated that state and local governments provide $80 billion annually in business incentives. The foregone revenue of the 10 states with the largest tax breaks is equivalent to the annual salaries of 27,000+ teachers.

  3. Articulate our values, use them to structure investments, and measure their actual benefits. We need to state what we expect of those doing business in our cities and insist, not just hope, that economic growth be a springboard for equitable opportunity. For those incentive deals we choose to do, requirements that provide strong, measurable public benefit should be the norm without exception. For example, New York City and State’s efforts to attract Amazon established no clear relationship between incentives offered and community benefits, which would still be true were a similar opportunity to be presented today. In contrast, Prosper Portland reformulated its mission, values and programs over the past five years to make racial equity the foundation of its work. All recipients of Prosper Portland’s largest incentive program, Enterprise Zone, execute a public benefits agreement. Companies can choose from a menu of options to fulfill their agreement, including creating a diversity hiring plan, engaging with local schools, and hosting events to support entrepreneurship. Initial results are promising, in part because companies wish to attract a younger talent pool that seeks employers with principles that align with their own.

  5. Promote equitable access to jobs. There is a broadly shared understanding today that human capital is core to the future of local economies and that businesses follow talent. It is therefore incongruous that our economic development entities remain focused on attracting businesses rather than cultivating our workforce. Studies suggest that customized business services such as job training are as much as 10 times more effective than incentives in influencing business location decisions. To aid economic mobility, economic developers should target industry expansion opportunities that align with pathways for the existing workforce and also invest in upskilling. Cities must provide protections for low-wage workers – disproportionately Black and female. Indianapolis recently repositioned its core economic development incentives to prioritize a higher minimum wage, health and childcare benefits, workforce training, and community partnerships.

  7. Invest in small businesses, with an emphasis on businesses of color. As the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, Philadelphia distributed $13.3 million in grants and zero-interest loans to 2,000 small businesses, more money than it had distributed to all businesses citywide in the past 10 years through its primary job creation program. Indy Chamber issued $6 million in small business loans, a 15-fold increase over loan activity in a typical year. In both cases, the majority of recipients were businesses of color – 75% in Indianapolis and 60% in Philadelphia. Economic development leaders with whom I’ve spoken share the view that efforts to rebuild small business strength must be sustained. A focus on minority entrepreneurship is critical to counter structural disparities. According to Brookings, Black people represent only 4.3% of the nation’s business owners despite being 12.7% of the U.S. population, and if businesses in Black communities earned and grew at the same rate as in other neighborhoods, they would see an additional $3.9 billion in annual revenue. Providing the financial and technical support to grow more Black-owned businesses will mean looking to models like Oakland, CA’s Black Arts Business and Movement District, which established a development corporation and impact fund to support Black artists and business owners.

  9. Transform economic development ecosystems. Community development is economic development, and cities’ institutions should align mission and coordinate investments in currently siloed entities to recognize that fact. In many cases, disruptive change will be necessary to inject new voices, establish new priorities, shift budgetary allocations, and truly transform systems. Public organizations must hire and promote leadership and staff that is more reflective of the demographics of their cities, and we must carefully consider whose voices and analyses are elevated as we refocus our work. Investments in capacity-building for local partners within the larger economic and community development ecosystem will be critical to ensure a more robust infrastructure.

There is great urgency to this work. We have seen how underlying economic inequities, matched with the indignities of the criminal legal system, have gotten us to a boiling point in our cities. The road ahead requires taking decisive action to promote racial equity and shared prosperity, including ending a decades-long experiment in economic growth absent a real commitment to equity.

Special thanks to Andrea Batista Schlesinger, Candace Damon, Leah Elliott, Gail Hankin, Jeff Hebert, Kyle Vangel, and Mary Beth Williams for their intellectual and analytic contributions to this article.

HR&A studies the economic impact of the Saratoga Racetrack


HR&A conducted an analysis of the regional impacts of the Saratoga Racetrack and found that the track produced an economic impact on the surrounding nine counties of between $186 million and $213 million per year. HR&A’s findings were eagerly awaited by local interests, and received attention in the local Albany Times Union, and Bloomberg Business Week.


Read the Times Union article

The Center for an Urban Future recognized Carl Weisbrod


HR&A Partner Carl Weisbrod was recognized by the Center for an Urban Future as “one of New York’s most innovative economic development leaders over the past three decades” at their 15th Annual Gala. Carl joined HR&A as a Partner in 2011, and currently leads efforts to transform the Hudson Square neighborhood into a mixed-use district focused on creative industries through an innovative rezoning proposal. In addition to his role at HR&A, Carl is a Clinical Professor at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate where he also serves as Academic Chair of the Concentration in Global Real Estate.