In 2011, on the heels of the last economic crisis, the Obama Administration launched Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) to provide support to dozens of economically distressed cities across the country. Recognizing the interconnected challenges stemming from economic decline and concentrated poverty, as well as the reality that local governments faced deep challenges as their own budgets were decimated by the financial downturn, the White House Economic Council and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) held a national competition to select a consortium of technical experts to design, operationalize, and manage a National Resource Network (NRN). The purpose of the network was to provide targeted expertise to help local government leaders stabilize their budgets, plan for economic recovery and growth, establish local entities to manage public improvement projects and public assets, and leverage public/private partnerships to attract jobs and investment.
HR&A was a founding member of the winning NRN consortium, partnering with Enterprise Community Partners, Public Financial Management, ICMA, and New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. From 2014 to 2018, the consortium provided technical assistance to 40 economically distressed cities in 22 red and blue states, bringing expertise in economic development, housing, public finance, governance, and urban planning.
Engagements began with an NRN team assessment of social and economic conditions, a deep and wide-ranging conversation with elected leadership, and negotiation of a local match of HUD subsidy consulting funds – all in an effort to identify the nexus between the core challenges contributing to poverty and the areas of particular interest to local leadership, thus those most likely to receive sustained local commitment to NRN team recommendations. Depending on the areas of greatest need and interest, experts from the consortium provided subsidized technical consulting services, ranging from leveraging downtown real estate assets to catalyze growth, to creating housing and employment strategy plans, to providing long-term financial projections and plans.
HR&A led detailed economic analyses and strategies for cities including Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, PA, New Bedford, MA, Dearborn, MI, Meridian, MS, Kansas City, KS, and Waco, TX, among others.
Prior to joining HR&A, Director Nina Bennett served as core staff to NRN, managing the development and deployment of the consortium’s diagnostic services. During her tenure, more than 60 cities nationwide received intensive, in-depth evaluations of their municipal operations, looming challenges, and untapped resources.
NRN’s design included several important features that were unique at the time, were key to its success, and remain important to similar efforts today. These include an overarching focus on inclusive economic recovery, simultaneous deployment of multiple TA providers with broad expertise, an insistence that city-specific TA be designed in response to on-the-ground opportunities and not practitioner siloes, an ethos of adaptability and close teamwork across multiple organizations, and a built-in embrace of peer learning. Among the outcomes of HR&A’s work through the NRN were:
Dearborn, MI: With design firm SmithGroupJJR, created an activation and redevelopment plan for West Downtown, including plans to reposition four surface parking lots and improve surrounding streetscapes. The City has since taken steps to solicit interest for redevelopment of publicly owned land in West Downtown.
Meridian, MS: Created a health district redevelopment plan around two regional hospitals in the downtown area, integrating previous planning efforts, assessing opportunities for growth around the healthcare anchor institutions, and identifying sources of funding for implementation. The City has since created a task force to facilitate collaboration between the two hospitals and evaluate shared parking and security needs in the district.
Scranton, PA: Assisted the City and its institutional stakeholders evaluate alternative organizational structures to implement the Downtown Scranton Community Plan that would establish a dedicated downtown implementation organization. As a result of these efforts, the City is partnering with Scranton Tomorrow, a non-profit Main Streets organization that includes representatives from local businesses and anchor institutions, to lead the implementation of the Downtown Plan.
Waco, TX: Produced an action plan for the City to increase downtown development to improve employment, investment, and incomes in Waco by identifying ten priority opportunities for downtown development through a framework for investment in public projects. Waco began implementing the plan by focusing on three of the priority projects: riverfront development, downtown programming, and initial steps to revise its development incentive policy.
Wilkes-Barre, PA: Developed a capital and operations funding strategy for Public Square, a 3-acre park at the heart of downtown, working closely with the Mayor’s Office and local stakeholders to create a vision for the future of the space and identify potential sources of funding for redevelopment. The City subsequently received a $200,000 State grant to initiate redevelopment, which was completed in 2018.
In 2015, the consortium was recognized as a finalist for the Harvard Ash Center’s Innovations in American Government Award. A 2018 evaluation by the Urban Institute found that Network cities “strongly believed that the [TA] engagements provided a valuable service, which the sites would not have otherwise been able to access.”