Thursday, September 10, 2009

Twin Cities Regionalism has more lessons for NE Ohio

A once prosperous suburban shopping mall, mired in a declining neighborhood, loses one its last anchor tenants and faces the prospect of closing down. Randall Park in Cleveland or Rolling Acres in Akron? No, it’s Brookdale Shopping Center in Brooklyn Center, MN, once one of Minneapolis’ premier indoor malls, now whipsawed between newer malls developed farther out from the city, and a reputation as being in a poor, unsafe part of the Twin Cities metro.

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, per capita income in Brooklyn Center fell from 87% of the metro area average in 1990, to 75% in 2000, to 64% in the most recent Census survey. This is critical, the paper reports, because this puts Brooklyn Center close to Detroit’s 60% mark --the nation’s worst city to suburb income ratio.

Why is this troubled inner ring suburb 10 miles from downtown Minneapolis significant to regionalism discussions in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio? Because according to the urban planning experts behind the Regional Prosperity Initiative, it shouldn’t be that way. The Regional Prosperity Initiative, or RPI, is a plan for a Northeast Ohio 16 county regional revenue sharing and land use planning organization patterned after the Twin Cities Met Council.

The RPI is advocating this form of Regionalism in large part due to the success they hold out in the 7 county Minneapolis-St. Paul Twin Cities region. The RPI-Twin Cities model shares new growth tax revenues from more prosperous, growing areas to restore the deteriorating urban core and inner ring suburbs. Applying “equity” to tax revenues is designed to help the worst areas of the region by channeling dollars where they are needed most, restoring the vitality of cities.

What is significant about the plight of Brooklyn Center is not that there is poverty; there is poverty in every city. The critical point is that despite an almost 20 year diversion of tax revenues to inner core suburbs like Brooklyn Center, the gap as seen in the Twin Cities between the prospering areas and those that are failing is among the worst in the nation. There are statistics beyond Brooklyn Center’s anecdotal evidence showing that revenue sharing does not always work as planned. The Twin Cities has had its RPI model in place for decades, yet the most recent Census reports their urban poverty rate among African-Americans is higher than Cleveland’s.

The Regional Prosperity Initiative’s land use planning would direct and manage new growth areas throughout the region, which stretches out to Ashtabula, south to East Liverpool on the Ohio River, west to Mansfield, and north again to Vermillion. It would serve a dual purpose of preserving open spaces from urban sprawl, while encouraging growth back in the cities where infrastructure exists, awaiting development.

Again, Twin Cities/RPI regionalism fails to deliver as promised. Research released by the Brookings Institution: "Job Sprawl Revisited", the movement of employment in a region, shows that for the period 1998-2006, the Twin Cities areas under a regionalism plan actually lost a greater percentage of downtown jobs and sprawled jobs outside the downtown area at twice the rate of Cleveland.

Another benefit advocated by the RPI brand of regionalism is the cost savings that results from consolidating government resources. The Met Council alone has 3,700 employees, taking on consolidated functions of transit, parks, and libraries among others. Nevertheless, the per capita cost for Municipal Government is 25% higher in the Twin Cities than our region, according to 2002 figures in Cost of Government Study for Northeastern Ohio, funded in part by the Gund Foundation.

The rush to put the RPI plan in place by 2010 is predicated on large part on the “success” of their model in the Twin Cities. This “success” may prove illusory or insignificant in a discussion about seriously redesigning the way Northeastern Ohioans live and work.

The inconclusive economic benefits of regionalism from the Twin Cities in terms of cost savings, controlling sprawl, and reinvigorating our urban cores should cause our community leaders to reconsider the RPI plans alongside other regionalism plans with measured success. Denver’s Mile High Compact replaces the RPI’s state-mandated involvement with a voluntary plan, allowing each community the chance to be sold on the benefits. Kalamazoo has a successful regionalism plan that is business-driven, and Baltimore’s focuses on collaborative efforts to reduce government costs. Even our own home-grown solutions as evidenced by the Fund for Our Economic Future show that we can collaborate without the heavy hand of another layer of government.

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