President Barack Obama makes an unscheduled stop at the Whiteside County Fair in Morrison, Illinois, during the economic bus tour Aug. 17, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

For the People, By the People, With the People: How the Federal Government Is Helping Build Better Communities

By Jerry Abramson, Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and Tara McGuinness, Executive Director, Community Solutions Task Force

From Detroit, Michigan to the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, local leaders are building better communities with the federal government as their collaborator and champion. And today, President Obama signed an executive order to ensure that the federal government can sustain this progress.

The challenge for communities

Day in and out, local leaders take on the responsibility of building a vision for their communities that reflects the ideas, needs and priorities of citizens. But over the years, local, state, regional and tribal leaders have struggled to crack the code of how to access the federal resources that truly meet their needs.

The challenges facing communities today are big and complex and demand that the federal government take a new approach. Over the course of this Administration, federal and local leaders have taken a fresh look at how to work together to solve problems. They’re coordinating behind the scenes, breaking down silos and building partnerships to meet communities’ biggest priorities — from creating community-built greenhouses that boost innovative agriculture, to re-lighting city streets and breathing new life into vacant storefronts to revitalize downtowns.

The Strong Cities, Strong Communities program in Gary, Indiana

Working together over the past seven years, we’ve made a lot of progress to improve federal-local collaboration. Today, the federal government is working a little bit differently in places around the country, and local leaders are feeling the difference.

Today, President Obama signed an executive order to help the federal government continue this good work through a Community Solutions Council. The Council provides a lasting structure for federal agencies to coordinate across government and deliver more effective, streamlined, and responsive federal assistance, improving interactions between the federal government and communities, the private sector and other stakeholders and to make positive impact on the lives of Americans.

The progress we’ve made in the field

Different regions have their own unique challenges and assets. That’s why, under President Obama, the federal government has worked to align resources with, and lend expertise that is customized to, the ideas and needs of local leaders and citizens.

Here are a few examples of the progress local leaders have made on the ground thanks to these new partnerships between federal agencies and communities:

Corbin, Kentucky

With few jobs and a downtown in decline, there was little reason to stay in Corbin, Kentucky. Local leaders had a vision to bring the Whitley County Farmers market, vendors, and live music downtown. Before, Corbin — with the limited capacity and low budget typical of a small town — would have had to navigate upwards of 38 programs from 10 different federal agencies to help realize this vision. Today, these towns can tap into streamlined federal support to revive the town’s main street.

Six federal agencies came together to launch “Local Food, Local Places,” a program that coordinates federal assistance to better help residents create walkable, healthy, and economically vibrant neighborhoods through strong local food systems.

A new farmer’s market helped drive the vacancy rate down from more than 40 percent to less than 5 percent in just two years. Vendors graduated to storefronts, opening over 20 new businesses that now receive the benefit of higher foot traffic downtown.

Once filled with vacant buildings and few businesses, Corbin’s Main Street is thriving.

Choctaw Nation, Oklahoma

The Choctaw Nation values strong agricultural communities as vital to the health of residents, the economic growth of their region, and food sovereignty. And with support from federal partners, Choctaw Nation has made food and nutrition a top priority for the region, pursuing projects such as community-built greenhouses and new kitchen equipment in public schools to offer healthier meals.

In 2013, Choctaw Nation was designated the first tribal Promise Zone and began to partner with dozens of federal agencies to improve quality of life for its people. Federal leaders, including a full-time staff member assigned to the local community, have assisted local and tribal leaders in navigating federal programs. Since 2013, the community has received $168 million in federal funding.

Tribal members partnered with Eastern Oklahoma State College to offer classes in aquaponics; the school now offers a one-day certificate course to teach students how to design the system for themselves. This new form of farming has the potential to provide the Choctaw Nation community with more access to healthy food in a more cost-effective way, while at the same time eliminating the need for additives, fertilizers, and other chemicals.

Williamson, West Virginia

Williamson, like many coal country communities, faces economic challenges due in part to a rapidly changing energy sector. The community faces an unemployment rate of more than 13 percent, a poverty rate of 30 percent, and a below-average life expectancy rate of 67 years. In 2012, local leaders teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) through the Livable Communities in Appalachia program. They formed a group called Sustainable Williamson to help turn around the future of their community, recognizing that health, quality of life, and economic development issues are inseparable.

With technical assistance and federal funding from across multiple agencies, a formerly vacant building on Main Street was renovated to create the Williamson Health and Wellness Center and provide health care services, nutrition education, and physical activity classes for residents who didn’t otherwise have access. The Center established a downtown farmer’s market and community gardens and a Health Innovation Hub to support new health and local food entrepreneurs. Now diabetic patients at the Center have access to health care, physical activity, and fresh food, and are seeing health improvements. New businesses are starting up in the downtown, bringing new energy and people to downtown. And Williamson is on a path to creating a healthy, vibrant future.

Detroit, Michigan

Transformation of Detroit’s city lights

In 2011, President Obama charged an interagency federal team with coordinating support for Detroit’s economic recovery. Less than half of the city’s 88,000 streetlamps were operational. Poorly lit areas became hot spots for illegal activity, threatening citizen safety. The city was in a state of emergency and local leaders could not see an alternative to replacing broken lights with outdated, inefficient, and costly streetlight technology. A member of the federal team recruited technical expertise from the Department of Energy to help Detroit’s new Public Lighting Authority consider long-term alternatives. Working together, they used data on what worked to improve lighting technology in other communities, and brought in several experts and residents from cities that had undergone conversions to energy-efficient LED lighting.

With this data and an analysis that laid out the benefits of converting to LEDs in hand, Detroit decided to use LED technology, producing a lower carbon footprint and saving an anticipated $3 million a year. Today, Detroit is nearly 100 percent re-lit with new energy efficient lighting technology, saving 46 million kilowatts of energy every year, nearly $3 million in annual electricity costs, and reducing emissions by the equivalent of 11,000 cars.

Little Rock, Arkansas

Like many American cities, Little Rock’s Main Street experienced sharp economic decline over the last several decades. Downtown Little Rock’s largest land use was parking; the Main Street was sustained by a few state office tenants and characterized by empty buildings. In 2010, the EPA, DOT, and Department of Housing and Urban Development came together and teamed up with Little Rock through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities to align transportation and affordable housing investments alongside environmental protection efforts while helping America’s cities realize their visions for a more prosperous future. Federal, state and city leaders worked with Little Rock’s residents and businesses to turn downtown Little Rock’s vacant lots into pocket parks, line streets with mini gardens, and expand an existing trolley line. The National Endowment for the Arts helped the City continue making improvements to Main Street through the Our Town Grant Program. Today, the City has developed a brand new, award-winning ‘Creative Corridor’ along Little Rock’s Main Street, and has leveraged several million dollars in new funding for cleanup and green infrastructure improvements.

In the words of local leaders:

Local leaders across the country have felt the impact of a better federal partner. Here’s what they had to say:

I am very thankful that the Choctaw Nation and partners have been awarded the Promise Zone designation….this designation will assist with ongoing efforts to emphasize small business development and bring economic opportunity to…high-need communities. I am confident that access to the technical assistance and resources offered by the Promise Zones designation will result in better lifestyles for people living and working within the Choctaw Nation” — Choctaw Chief Gregory E. Pyle
“Having federal partners working with you, rooting for you, helping remove obstacles instead of being the obstacles themselves, completely reinvigorates you as a community and helps you really know that you can in fact move forward.” — Fresno, CA Mayor Ashley Swearengin
“[Strong Cities, Strong Communities] gave a much more personal relationship between the city and…the federal government…Lynnette [Strong Cities, Strong Communities Team Leader] is an example of what this President was willing to do to humanize our work with the federal government” — Rockford, IL Mayor Larry Morrissey
“The Oglala Sioux Tribe appreciates the preservation and repatriation of these significant cultural language records, and the federal government’s commitment to returning them to our people. It is important for our children to be immersed in our language, and will continue toward the preservation of our culture for the next seven generations. For that I am grateful and appreciative.” — Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Steele.
“In addition to putting out fires, we’ve had the luxury of long-term planning with the Feds coming in to work side by side with us each day [through Strong Cities, Strong Communities]. So often as city leaders, we think about how to get money from the federal government. But what I’ve come to understand is that the technical assistance and ability to work across agency lines has been priceless to the City of Gary.” — Gary, IN Mayor Freeman-Wilson
One of my priorities as Mayor of Shelby County, Tennessee has been building regional cooperation. … The Partnership for Sustainable Communities not only provided necessary funding to support regional planning, but also set the example for what regions and its residents could accomplish through collaborative problem solving and cooperative action. Whether it is to handle transportation, economic development, or prepare for natural disasters, I know from my time as County Mayor that by pooling our resources and ideas strategically we can craft better solutions to our greatest issues, and prepare our regions for sustained growth, prosperity, and quality of life.” — Mark H. Luttrell, Jr., Mayor of Shelby County, Tennessee

Check out today’s fact sheet to find out more about ways federal and local leaders are improving collaboration today and in the days to come through the Community Solutions Council.