How to Reinvent a Struggling Downtown

In this Big Ideas for Cities feature, Little Rock, Arkansas Mayor Mark Stodola discusses how creative placemaking can drive economic development in a city’s downtown.

How can a city reinvent a downtown after it’s been ‘dead’ for 30 years? In this Big Ideas for Cities talk, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola discusses what it takes to make a struggling downtown come back to life. “When the core of a downtown—when the heart a downtown—is thriving,” says Mayor Stodola, “the rest of the city is going to thrive as well.”

Do you have a big idea? Since 2014, the National League of Cities’ Big Ideas for Cities series has featured cities and businesses that are using “big ideas” to drive communities forward. The series has quickly become a popular platform for leaders to share their success stories and describe, in detail, the steps they’ve taken to make their communities better.

We are currently accepting speaker submissions. Leaders are invited to share the best practices and innovative solutions moving their cities forward. The series is filmed year-round and open to individuals from all sectors – public, private and nonprofit. Talks are filmed at NLC’s studio in our new building on North Capitol Street in Washington, D.C.

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 8.58.14 AMAbout the author: Tim Mudd is the Program Manager for Content and Social Media at the National League of Cities. Follow Tim on Twitter at @TimMudd.

Six Questions Every Elected Official Should Ask About Their City’s Retirement Benefits

NLC recently announced the Public Sector Retirement Initiative, designed to provide timely research and educational resources to help elected officials navigate the retirement landscape, solve local government retirement challenges, and help cities achieve greater fiscal sustainability. This post is the first in NLC’s Public Sector Retirement Initiative blog series.

For city leaders, navigating the waters of public sector retirement can be tricky. Nlc recently launched a new initiative to help identify trends, challenges and solutions to local government retirement issues. (Getty Images)

For city leaders, navigating the waters of public sector retirement can be tricky. NLC recently launched a new initiative to help identify trends, challenges and solutions to local government retirement issues. (Getty Images)

In 2009, the city of Atlanta pensions were only 53 percent funded, facing a $1.5 billion shortfall. Mayor Kasim Reed knew that he needed to act. Focused on an inclusive and transparent reform process, the city established a panel with representatives from unions, elected officials and local businesses leaders to find a solution. The 18-month process ended with a plan unanimously approved by the Atlanta City Council requiring existing employees to make a larger contribution out of their own payroll to the pension, and placing all new employees in a so-called “hybrid” system with a reduced defined benefit plan tied to a 401(k)-type defined contribution benefit with mandatory participation. The reform package also reduced the city’s long-term pension liabilities by over $500 million.

City leaders across the country are faced with rising retiree-related costs, and a responsibility to ensure that the municipal workforce has secure retirement and healthcare. These priorities can at times seem conflicting, and the complexities of managing retirement and other post-employment benefits (OPEB) can be daunting. What options are available and what role can city leaders play?

NLC wants to educate municipal leaders

The National League of Cities (NLC) recently announced the Public Sector Retirement Initiative, designed to provide timely research and educational resources to help elected officials navigate these issues.

The initiative will explore questions every elected official needs to ask, including:

  1. What are the best practices for providing retirement benefits?
  2. What is my city spending to provide retirement and healthcare benefits? Is this a larger proportion of the budget than it was a few years ago?
  3. Do the benefits my municipality provides allow me to recruit and retain the workforce my city needs?
  4. How is my municipality fiscally responsible for the retirement benefits offered to employees?
  5. How will recently enacted Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) changes affect my municipality’s finances and cost of borrowing?
  6. How do employees use retiree health benefits between their retirement and Medicare eligibility?

Understanding the role of the state

The Public Sector Retirement Initiative will also explore and help city leaders understand the key elements of the city-state relationship affecting the management of retirement and OPEB. For example, many states allow or require some cities to participate in statewide pension systems; this requirement has many benefits, like reducing costs for participating cities. In some cases, state statute sets required pension contributions, limiting a city’s ability to address its liability – even when the city manages its own plans. And no matter how your plan is managed, GASB changes have made it abundantly clear that these liabilities are a part of your city’s fiscal health.

This is the first post in our new blog series on public sector retirement. In the coming weeks, we will have postings from members of NLC’s Public Sector Retirement Advisory Council, a group representing perspectives from the private sector, state municipal leagues, city leadership, academia and nonprofits to provide guidance and advice to the initiative. We hope you find this information useful as you think about your own city’s finances and workforce needs.

About the Author: Josh Hart is the Senior Fellow for Public Finance at the National League of Cities. Contact Josh at

Cities Explore Ways to Reduce Overuse of Jails for Young Adults

“There is enough data that exist that shows that recidivism is also an indicator that our current justice system is not functioning properly. We must begin with the lightest touch in our system especially with youth that focuses on treatment and education if we are going to change course in America.”

Yvette Gentry, Chief of Community Building, Office of Mayor Greg Fischer, Louisville, Kentucky


Cities increasingly show greater commitment to diversion at the point of arrest as an alternative to jail in order to reduce the inflow of young adults into local facilities — thus reducing long-term effects of incarceration while young. Employing the strategy often involves providing specialized training to frontline police officers and tightening links to mental and behavioral health providers.

Eight cities with a strong interest in early diversion and other jail-use reduction strategies – including Birmingham, Alabama; Enfield, Connecticut; Las Vegas; Long Beach, California; Louisville, Kentucky; Norristown, Pennsylvania; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle – recently gathered at the National League of Cities’ first City Leadership to Reduce Overuse of Jails for Young Adults Leadership Academy, in Denver. With help from expert faculty from the Vera Institute of Justice, the W. Haywood Burns Institute, and the Justice Management Institute, among others, cities developed or enhanced plans to explore policies for diverting young adults to mental health and substance abuse treatment services as an alternative to jail. The Leadership Academy also provided information on cross-system collaboration and data sharing, as well as proactive methods to reduce racial and ethnic disparities at the time of arrest.

Up to ten additional cities will participate in a second Leadership Academy that will take place October 19 – 21 in Chicago.

Leadership Academy attendees’ interest in diversion builds on successful and promising programs, as detailed by NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute), from around the country that focus on police collaborations with behavioral health providers, programs targeted to the young adult population, and adult citation-in-lieu-of-arrest programs.

A few existing programs receive funding and technical assistance from the GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation, a division of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration with the US Department of Health and Human Services. The GAINS Center website also serves as a repository for resources, training opportunities and funding prospects.

Many city leaders have begun to explore the Seattle LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program model. This program, piloted in two Seattle area neighborhoods, allows police officers to divert low-level offenders directly to community services. The LEAD National Support Bureau provides strategic guidance and technical support to other local jurisdictions.

The YEF Institute is developing a Peer Learning Network on jail reduction that will provide additional resources and connections to experts on topics such as diversion, jail reentry, reducing racial and ethnic disparities and other emerging strategies. For more information, email Heidi Cooper at with the subject line “Jail Reduction Peer Learning Network.”

Heidi CooperAbout the Authors: Heidi Cooper is the Associate of Justice reform within NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.




RDHeadshotRashawn Davis is an Amelior Graduate Fellow at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.

Mayors Aren’t Just Talking About Housing and Homelessness – They’re Doing Something About It

For the third straight year, mayors have identified housing as a fundamental challenge facing their communities, according to our 2016 State of the Cities report.

(michaeljung/Getty Images)

Recognizing the unique role that housing plays in the fabric of cities, 40 percent of mayors in our sample dedicated significant portions of their State of the City speeches to the issue. (michaeljung/Getty Images)

Nearly a decade since the housing and financial crisis, one of the cruel ironies continuing to grip many cities is the lack of affordable housing – even as they continue to struggle with large numbers of foreclosed or abandoned properties.

To address both of these issues in their State of the City speeches, the mayors of Baltimore and Nashville highlighted recent efforts. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake emphasized the city’s Vacants to Value initiative that has quadrupled demolition funding to $100 million over 10 years. “It makes me proud that Vacants to Value was recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative, and honored by the Financial Times as an original idea that has made life better for people living and working in cities,” said the mayor.

In Nashville, Mayor Megan Barry touted the launch of a Metro Property Donation Process for housing development. “Nearly 60 infill lots will be available for housing development throughout Davidson County. More than half of them are in the urban core. For the first time, we’re making Metro’s own property available for affordable housing,” said Mayor Barry.

The need for affordable housing has been underscored by an increased prevalence of “tent cities” in many communities. While some cities have attempted to address homeless encampments through ordinances banning sleeping or lying in public spaces, others such as Indianapolis have taken the route of proactively outlining how they will handle them.

In Charleston, South Carolina, Mayor John Tecklenburg has recognized that a part of the city’s solution involves improving access to existing housing stock owned or managed by private landlords. The mayor partnered with NLC to recruit landlords to house homeless veterans, and in his State of the City address he said his goal was to bring the area’s encampments to “a humane but clear and final end in the near future.”

Recognizing the need to take action on homelessness in a strategic manner, 883 local leaders across 45 states and the District of Columbia have joined the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. As a result of the increased focus, veteran homelessness has fallen 47 percent nationwide since 2010. Most notably, for the first time in history, federal partners have defined what it means to effectively end veteran homelessness and certified that 29 communities and two states have achieved those benchmarks. Last Friday, Austin was announced as the most recent city.

Like Mayor Tecklenburg, Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler has also been actively involved in the recruitment of private landlords. Acknowledging the need to stop gentrification or forced displacement, he used his annual State of the City address to stress the need to develop housing “in a way that will actually achieve opportunities for permanent affordability.”

Our 2016 State of the Cities report found mayors acknowledging the unique needs facing veterans as a whole. When analyzing specific demographics mentioned in speeches, 20 percent discussed veterans. Notably, seniors emerged as another frequently mentioned special needs population. This should not be surprising, since we are now five years in to the “silver tsunami” in which 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 years old every day.

Given the central role that affordable housing plays in the health and vitality of a city, it is easy to see why the topic is a consistent feature in mayoral addresses. However, given the depth of the affordable housing crisis in all communities, mayors are taking innovative and strategic approaches to address the issue by focusing on key demographics. As recovery from the Great Recession continues, the cautious optimism expressed by mayors in all regions of the country is well grounded.

This post is part of a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report. Check back next week as we delve deeper into what mayors had to say about public safety.

Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

What Cities Need to Conquer Opioid and Prescription Abuse

Cities across the country are increasingly affected by the opioid crisis. Here’s our comprehensive roundup of the programs supported by NLC and the Obama Administration in fighting prescription drug and heroin abuse.

(Getty Images)

Responding to record increases in prescription drug and heroin overdoses across America, the U.S. Communities Alliance made medications that can stop or reverse the effects of an opioid overdose available to the state and local government sector in October 2015. Now, a key medication is available to cities at a steep discount. (Photo: yanyong/Getty Images)

Many families are struggling with opioid and prescription drug abuse. It is not a topic often brought up in family conversations or that is easy to talk about with loved ones. A diverse group of families across the U.S. are affected by drug abuse and are collecting resources about how to get help in their city. Local officials realize opioid and prescription abuse walks into the lives of families and leaves them helpless in a short amount of time. Instead of being silent on the topic, let’s take a deeper dive on the opioid crisis and how health care stakeholders like CVS Health and U.S. Communities are taking steps to help these populations.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any year on record. More than six out of every ten drug overdose deaths involve an opioid. And since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin) nearly quadrupled.

One way that companies like CVS Health are helping communities address and prevent drug abuse is by increasing availability of Naloxone. Also known as Narcan, this medication is used to reverse an opioid overdose. Naloxone has long been a prescription medication, but CVS Health is working with cities and states to increase access to the drug for patients without a prescription. Tom Davis, RPh, Vice President of Pharmacy Professional Practices at CVS Pharmacy says, “By establishing a physician-authorized standing order that allows our pharmacies to dispense naloxone to patients without an individual prescription, we strengthen our commitment to helping communities we serve begin to address the challenges of prescription drug abuse.”

According to CVS Health, there are 31 states where CVS Pharmacists can dispense Naloxone without a prescription: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. And CVS Health plans to make the medication available at CVS Pharmacy locations in more states before the end of this year.

Mental and physical health continues to be on the minds of local officials in every city in America. Health care is the primary concern for mayors in 2016, according to NLC State of Cities. CVS Health has two programs available at no cost to cities to increase awareness about the dangers of prescription drug abuse and make controlled substance disposal more accessible. Police departments can request medication disposal units through CVS Health’s Medication Disposal for Safer Communities Program. These units will help local communities safely dispose of unwanted medications. CVS Health has also created the Pharmacists Teach Program, which teaches high school-aged teens about the value of making positive choices and preventing prescription abuse.

Another program supported by the National League of Cities and the Obama Administration in fighting prescription drug and heroin abuse is a contract through U.S. Communities called Premier. U.S. Communities is a NLC Business Partner that provides local agencies in the U.S. with competitively bid public contracts for various products and services. Premier’s contract saves time and money for public entities by allowing access to 290 pharmaceutical manufacturers, which includes access to Narcan.

CVS Health is a NLC Business Partner that administers the NLC Prescription Discount Program for NLC member cities in the United States. CVS Health is dedicated to helping cities address and prevent drug abuse, including through its education program for teens and its work to increase safe drug disposal options. NLC continues to research topics that affect cities and deliver resources to local officials that alleviate stress while providing residents with a peace of mind. Our Savings and Solutions Programs continue to grow and guide key decision makers every day.

About the Author: Rasheeda Mitchell is the Senior Associate for Strategy & Partnerships at the National League of Cities. Follow Rasheeda on Twitter @LRasheeda.

A Window into the Opioid Crisis in Kentucky

NLC’s Jim Brooks shares an insightful and personal account of his recent trip to Kentucky with the National City-County Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic.

methodone clinic

Methadone is dispensed at NYK Med in Covington, Kentucky. (Tom Martin)

How do you take stock of human tragedy? Maybe it is wrong even to try. In a world overrun with numbers, is it still possible to understand suffering through statistics?

A few days ago, I learned first-hand the practical consequences of the opioid epidemic in northern Kentucky. I now have some faces to accompany numbers.

NKY Med, a northern Kentucky methadone clinic, serves 1,500 patients each day. They open before sunrise so that men and women going to work can receive their medication without fear of being late to work. Later in the morning, there is a time slot reserved for pregnant women.

The clinic is a busy place. Clients come with their children. The line moves purposefully as each dose is dispensed. The faces vary but all seem intense and focused, but also serene.

There is no shame here. The clinicians are business-like, yet attentive. Patient and care-giver get to know one another. These folks are in it for the long-haul. Methadone treatment lasts years. It may last a lifetime.

Those who walk through the doors of NKY Med are the lucky ones. Although it’s a for-profit clinic, the medication plus counseling plus peer networking — all paid for out of pocket — offers a haven in the midst of a region beaten down by opioid overdose deaths.


Members of the City-County National Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic meet inmates in a peer-assisted treatment program at the Kenton County Detention Center. (Tom Martin)

Strangely enough, some other lucky people are not far away. They are the 107 men and women in the six-month substance abuse treatment program at the Kenton County Detention Center. To spend time with and talk to these men and women is to know the face of hope.

In an open plan dormitory absent cells or bars, the men gather together. The group huddle at the close of their morning talk-therapy session has all the feel of a college football practice session. They are young and old, mostly white. But they do not chafe or hang their heads when their day is interrupted by our band of well-intentioned city and county officials. With loud voice and clear eyes they welcome us. They talk to us. In this small space, for these few minutes, they share the hope of this facility’s extensive, complex, and interconnected addiction treatment program. A program that is both cost effective and medically appropriate.


A door to a treatment room at the Kenton County Detention Facility in northern Kentucky. (Tom Martin)

In the days that followed I discussed what we saw at the clinic and the detention center with the city and county leaders in attendance. All are knowledgeable about the opioid crisis in their community, and all are devoted to finding answers. They all have been inside lots of jails in their roles as policy makers and planners. But this time, instead of beds counted, guard salaries allocated, and federal reimbursements accounted for, they too have faces and names to carry home.

The National City-County Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic will prepare a report with a set of recommendations and best practices to help local governments serve their communities. It was the preparation for that report that brought the task force to northern Kentucky, and the men and women serving on the task force will help to write this report.

I can only hope that by bearing witness to their determination to manage and eventually overcome addiction, all of us in some small way have contributed to a better outcome.

If you’d like us to send you the latest resources and tools for cities to tackle the opioid epidemic, please provide your email below:

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement. Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

Four Pieces of Advice for Women Leaders from Vice Mayor Dot LaMarche


Youth delegates at the 2016 Congressional City Conference celebrate the National League of Cities “Cities Lead 2016” campaign platform. (Jason Dixson for NLC).

In celebration of Women’s Equality Day, we asked the president of NLC’s Women in Municipal Government (WIMG) constituency group – Vice Mayor Dot LaMarche of Farragut, Tennessee – for advice she would give to women aspiring to be effective local leaders. Here’s what she had to say.

1 — Run a Trustworthy and Clean Campaign — Always

Given the current climate of campaigns today, it’s easy to give into the temptation of running a negative campaign. But at the local level, your constituents are your friends and neighbors, and no one appreciates a smear campaign. Assess your skills and qualifications, and then sell them in a professional manner.

Use your experience to your advantage. I served as a registered nurse for 35 years, which helped me understand the value of service to others and helped me get to know the members of my community. I was also president of a home owner’s association, a member of my local zoning board of appeals, an alderwoman for my adopted home of Farragut – and most importantly, I’m a wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. When it came time to run for office, I leveraged all of my experiences, from bandaging boo-boos on the playground to coordinating patient care in the ER of Rex Hospital in Raleigh.

Win by taking pride in all of your work – not by taking away the pride others find in theirs.

2 — Communicate with Your Constituents

It goes without saying that your constituents are the reason we get elected into office in the first place. Never forget that.

We all know the stress of a full voicemail or a climbing number of unread messages in an inbox, but I have made it a habit to always respond to my constituents by letter, e-mail or phone. City leaders are very connected with the people they serve; we may shop in the same grocery store, go to the same PTA meetings, or attend the same church. Taking the time to say hello and chat goes a long way. They value when you listen, and will not forget what you say.

Communicating with your community is the best way to find out the needs of your residents, and the best first step in addressing their priorities.

3 — Never Stop Learning

I’ve been married 55 years and have been working even longer, but there is seldom a day that goes by when I don’t learn something new. Part of being an effective local leader is embracing learning as a full-time job requirement.

When I was first elected to city council in 2003, the world was a different place. We take them for granted now, but social media – especially Facebook and Twitter – has drastically changed the way we communicate with our residents. Part of being an effective leader is being able to use these new tools to reach our residents.

Once you are in office, constantly seek out ways to learn more about the issues facing your city and community. I have taken many educational seminars to refine my leadership and communication skills, and they have taken me far.

Your job is always changing, and there’s always room to improve.

4 — Network, Network, Network

This is my best advice for women in general.

Part of learning, is listening and sharing with your peers. Talk to other members of your town council, other leaders in your state and other local officials from around the country.

The networking opportunities that both my state municipal league and the National League of Cities (NLC) have afforded me are truly invaluable. In addition to making lifelong friends, attending annual conferences like City Summit and the Congressional City Conference allow city leaders from all around the country to meet and share their best practices and solutions.

But don’t stop there.

Women need to get involved and let our voices be heard. At NLC, you can make an impact by joining constituency groups, serving on federal advocacy committees, or applying to leadership positions. Choose groups that match your interests. Serving as the president of the Women in Municipal Government (WIMG) allows me to an advocate for women and raise awareness for the issues I care about most.

I can tell you one thing: more women need to get involved in local government!

About the Author: Dot LaMarche is vice mayor of Farragut, Tennessee, and serves as president of Women in Municipal Government (WIMG) and on NLC’s board of directors.