May 16, 2012

Strong Cities, Strong Communities: Highlights from the Fifth Biennial Reinventing Older Communities Conference

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Last week, I attended and spoke at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s Fifth Biennial Reinventing Older Communities conference in Philadelphia, PA.  This year, the conference focused on how government, non-profit, academic, philanthropic, and private-sector partners can support economic development strategies to reinvent older communities and build more resilient cities – large, medium, and small – across the United States.  This theme especially resonates with the Administration’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) initiative, an initiative to reinvigorate local economies, and build resilience and local capacity in cities – large, medium, and small – that have been hard hit by manufacturing losses, long-term unemployment, rising foreclosures, and other challenges over the last several decades.

On March 15, 2012, the White House brought together the lead SC2 partners to discuss how to better collaborate and align efforts across the public, private, and philanthropic sectors to build resilience.  During the conference, President Obama made a surprise visit to announce the creation of the White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities.  (For much more on this Convening, and on SC2, subscribe to the new SC2 e-newsletter.) Chester, PA -- one of the six SC2 pilot cities

In Philadelphia last week, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan gave a keynote address highlighting HUD and Administration work to strengthen the housing market and create jobs.  He talked extensively about SC2 as one key effort by the Obama Administration to help local governments strengthen their capacity, better utilize existing resources, and change how the federal government partners with distressed communities to help slash red tape and rebuild their economies.  Secretary Donovan noted:

“…this Administration recognizes three fundamental things about cities that reflect the lessons of the last century:

First, that every community needs a federal partner that understands that one size doesn’t fit all.

Second, that being a good partner isn’t just about seeing problems — it’s also about recognizing opportunities.

And third, that no city can succeed without strong local leadership and institutional capacity — no matter how big the federal grant or well crafted the federal policy.”

Indeed, that’s why SC2 emphasizes the critical role of locally driven decision-making and priority setting.  Federal staff who comprise the SC2 Community Solutions Teams work side-by-side with city government staff and other community partners to help address locally identified priorities and break down federal government barriers.

We have already seen through SC2 that even in communities facing numerous challenges, there are often many assets that can be leveraged, such as a local anchor institution like Widener University in Chester, PA — one of the six SC2 pilot cities.  Located 13 miles south of Philadelphia, the City of Chester is working closely with Widener as well as the Institute for Economic Development and and the Crozer-Chester Medical Center to strengthen home ownership by encouraging employers to provide cash incentives workers who settle in Chester, with the City contributing money to cover down payment costs.  (For more on resilience and the role of local anchors, in Chester and around the nation, please see HUD’s recent issue of Evidence Matters on the topic.).

In fact, as a part of the conference in Philadelphia, attendees joined a bus tour to visit Chester and witness first-hand the potential a small community like Chester still has to rebuild when the right partners are able to collaborate and align efforts with local leaders to support their vision for the future.  That is what makes this Administration’s SC2 initiative so special — and what made for a memorable week in Philadelphia and Chester.

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