Money Pit

Ten years, $200 million, and one heck of a political headache: Minneapolisís grand plan for neighborhood revitalization enters the home stretch.

But many say Miller has an instinct for always knowing what time it is, both politically and strategically. He's "astonished," he says with a broad, easy smile, to still hold a job after eight years. Wryly, he adds, "I don't think anybody would have bet I'd have been here that long." He works assiduously to stay out of the spotlight, preferring to operate behind the scenes. He neither courts nor trusts media attention, figuring it can't do him any good.

Miller's roots in Minneapolis neighborhoods run deep. He grew up in Powderhorn and graduated from Central High School in 1966. His father was a laborer, then a paving foreman for the city; his mother was a teacher. "My dad and my mom were both adamant that you had to contribute something to the community so that it's better off than when you started," he recalls.

Miller went to the University of Chicago, where he earned a B.A. in economics. He proceeded to work for the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C., and Boston while earning a master's degree in hospital and health-care administration from George Washington University. By his own admission, he was busy climbing the bureaucratic career ladder.

Teddy Maki

A desire to spend more time with his wife and three kids brought him back to his home town in the Seventies. He has lived in the Fulton neighborhood in the southwest corner of the city since 1977 and helped establish a neighborhood organization there. He worked as a planning supervisor for Hennepin County and eventually headed the Community and Resource Exchange (CARE) program, a joint city-county effort aimed at encouraging neighborhood-based projects. "I've been through every type of bureaucracy you could name," he cracks. Indeed, before selecting Miller the NRP Policy Board debated whether he was too much of an insider for the experimental new program.

But Miller professes that he was already shedding his past as a bureaucrat by the time he took the program's reins. It had dawned on him, he says, that he was out of touch with the proverbial guy on the street: "A lot of the stuff that I was dealing with was removed from any kind of reality." The CARE job "radicalized" him, he says, alerted him to the notion of actually listening to what neighborhood residents had to say.

His first priority at the NRP was to cut through the process-speak and get the ball rolling. The program, he told the Star Tribune at the time, was "an administrative nightmare." He set about getting things organized, holding meetings on topics like "How do you hold a meeting?"

Today Miller doesn't have to tutor anybody on the basics. The NRP has become a system unto itself, and many of the participants have learned the game--only too well, in the view of skeptics who suggest that Miller has turned the program into a kind of shadow government.

"He's the best bureaucrat I ever met," says Joe Barisonzi, who once headed the Lyndale Neighborhood Association and now serves as CEO of an online venture called CommunityLeader.com. "And early on NRP needed a bureaucrat. Now it needs leadership.

"My biggest critique of Bob," adds Barisonzi, "is that, in classic bureaucratic form, he has tried to position himself as the arbiter between city hall and the neighborhoods. To city hall he wants to represent the neighborhoods, and to the neighborhoods he wants to represent city hall."

 

Like so many municipal projects, the NRP began with a task force, which begat--what else?--an advisory committee. In 1987 then-Mayor Don Fraser and the city council put together an ad hoc group to find ways to funnel more development money into the neighborhoods. Part of the stated motivation was the previous year's overhauling of the federal tax code, which had caused private investment in rental housing to dry up. The initial recommendation of the Neighborhood Housing and Economic Development Task Force called for some $84 million a year in spending, with the primary emphasis on housing.

By the time the city council and the state Legislature passed a law to establish the NRP, the $84 million-a-year proposal had morphed into a $20 million-a-year plan slated to last 20 years; policymakers sometimes compared it to the city's 20-year street-paving project. The state law allowed Minneapolis to undertake a complicated pooling and refinancing scheme involving several big downtown projects to fund the program.

The goals outlined in the statute were broad, and arguably impossible to measure: "The activities of [the] program must preserve and enhance within the neighborhoods private and public physical infrastructure, public health and safety, economic vitality, the sense of community, and social benefits." The law called for nine different types of projects the money could be spent on, but the emphasis was clearly on housing: The measure required that 52.5 percent of the program money be spent on "housing programs and related purposes." Though the law does not mention affordable housing, city officials now insist that it should be a priority.

Despite the vagueness of the law, the NRP has certainly fallen short of the mark. According to the most recent city statistics, the "action plans" outlining how each neighborhood wants to spend the money allotted to it have earmarked 49 percent of the NRP's total expenditures for housing programs. Factor in administrative costs and that number drops to about 46 percent. City number crunchers don't have hard-and-fast figures about how much money has gone to affordable-housing programs, but it's clear that far more money has gone into home-improvement loans or grants than for, say, rental housing. The NRP has also funded a bevy of smaller projects ranging from ornamental street lighting to improvements in city parks and schools. (See "Where Has All the Money Gone?" sidebar at the end of page)

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