Commentary: Flint shows need for innovative city-state partnerships

By Malcolm Duncan and Aja Brown

Tuesday, March 15, 2016; MyStatesman.com  

When cities and states work well together, they form a formidable force for revitalization and growth to overcome America’s toughest economic and fiscal challenges. 

There are effective state-city partnerships across the nation. Indiana recently launched the Regional Cities Initiative, which incentivizes cities to collaborate – rather than compete – to attract new businesses. To encourage homegrown entrepreneurship, New York has initiated a state program that provides startup capital to companies that remain in comeback cities such as Buffalo or Syracuse. Oregon has empowered local communities to shape municipal public safety programs, while California has allied with its cities in the redesign of state education programs to spur economic recovery.

We know that for those cities facing the toughest economic and fiscal challenges, state governments can be instrumental in local turnaround efforts. But we also know what happens when that partnership is missing.

In Michigan, the state takeover of Flint’s finances directly led to the public health crisis that city and its residents now face. Flint Now has become a call for immediate action to provide clean drinking water to that city’s 100,000 residents. But it should also be a wake-up call for governors across the nation that they ignore the unique problems of their most economically challenged cities – and the people who live there – at their own peril.

The reality is that Flint – and hundreds of other cities like Flint – don’t just face a health problem or a fiscal problem; they face long term economic challenges that don’t lend themselves to simple solutions.

The good news is that there is a model emerging at the federal level that offers some hope. In 2013, the federal government created the National Resource Network to provide cost-cutting, comprehensive technical assistance to cities around the country. The network’s approach is there is no one-size-fits-all solution for economically challenged cities, and any response needs to recognize and address the links between multiple challenges.

Recognizing that cities face a series of interconnected problems, from high unemployment to crippling debt, ineffective school systems and crumbling infrastructure, the network deploys teams of private and public sector experts that work with city and community leaders to identify and help implement specific strategies. This support has been instrumental in advancing efforts in our own cities: Waco and Compton, California.

The National Resource Network has provided substantial assistance to back the efforts of Prosper Waco, a public-private initiative aimed at increasing financial security, improving education and bettering health outcomes. Network experts are helping to map out effective strategies that leverage the city’s resources to realize these goals.

Likewise, Compton is working with the network to leverage its existing assets and foster new connections at the local and national level to hasten a citywide recovery from years of financial distress.

Both partnerships show that while more aid to cities from the state and federal level may always be welcome, mayors and other city leaders are really looking for true partners and collaborators.

States should take the same approach. Last month, Massachusetts became the first state to adopt the modeling by creating its own pilot State Resource Network, which provides up funding and technical assistance to 10 Gateway Cities to support their revitalization efforts.

Mayors across the country are eager to embrace innovative approaches and work with state leaders to turn today’s economically struggling cities into tomorrow’s comeback stories. It’s time for states to partner with their city leaders in the name of progress.