How Six Cities Are Pursuing Equity and Innovation in Economic Development

The participants in NLC’s Equitable Economic Development (EED) Fellowship are tackling unemployment, low income levels, and workforce-related issues in their communities – but each city is employing different tactics.

This week, NLC staff is heading to Houston, one of six cities in our inaugural class of EED Fellowship participants. Our plan is to further provide technical assistance to help the city pursue economic development goals. (Getty Images)

This week, NLC staff is heading to Houston, one of six cities in our inaugural class of EED Fellowship participants. Our plan is to further provide technical assistance to help the city pursue economic development goals. (Getty Images)

The need for equitable economic development programs is dire. The National League of Cities‘ (NLC) new president, Matt Zone, councilmember from Cleveland, Ohio, launched a new NLC Task Force on Economic Mobility and Opportunity at City Summit in Pittsburgh towards the end of last year. According to the Brookings Institute, states and localities spend $50 to $80 billion on tax breaks and incentives each year in the name of economic development, despite a mountain of evidence showing that tax incentives produce mostly marginal returns. These traditional approaches to economic development by local governments have not benefited all populations – and, in many cases, the policies and programs have particularly neglected or even shortchanged people of color, immigrants, and low income communities. Cities need to be intentional about targeting their economic development programs, funding and policies at the specific populations and neighborhoods that are increasingly distant from the growth sectors of their regional and city economies.

To that end, the National League of Cities (NLC), together with PolicyLink and the Urban Land Institute (ULI), launched the Equitable Economic Development (EED) Fellowship last year with the generous support of the Surdna and Open Societies Foundations. Specifically, the EED Fellowship provides one year of technical assistance to a class of six cities to help them pursue more equitable and inclusive economic development policies and programs in traditionally underserved communities – those that have the highest levels of unemployment, lowest levels of income and educational attainment, and represent the highest needs for job- and workforce-related programs in the city. Through leadership development, technical assistance, peer learning and sharing best practices, the fellowship provides city leaders with insights and tools to make equity, transparency, sustainability, innovation, and community engagement driving forces for how they conduct economic development and bring an intentional focus on communities that have been historically disconnected from economic growth and prosperity.

The EED Fellowship kicked off in June 2016 with a two-day retreat, during which the EED Fellows presented the group with one specific project in their economic development agenda on which they would focus during the course of the fellowship. Later in the fall, EED program staff conducted scoping visits to each of the cities, during which they introduced the fellowship and its goals to senior city officials, departments and agencies, met with community or government stakeholders, and advised the EED city fellows to finalize the scope of fellowship project. Two EED fellows from each city then met for a second convening at which they presented a project update to their EED fellowship peers. The mid-year retreat also included sessions with leading experts on economic development issues.

Throughout the year, the EED Fellowship also offers technical assistance via webinars on different topics identified by the six cities. Some of the topics covered include: inclusive strategies for small business development and entrepreneurship support, best practices in collecting data for equitable economic development, institutionalizing equity in economic development programs and policies, and presenting a framework to incorporate an equity lens in economic development incentive package.

The inaugural EED Fellowship class consists of three fellows from the cities of Boston, Charlotte, Houston, Memphis, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. Below is a quick summary of each city project, as well as a list of the three EED Fellows from each city:


The city of Boston is interested in exploring the intentional support of worker co-operatives in the private sector by developing and expanding access to capital and technical assistance for existing worker co-ops and ensuring that new firms focus on promising growth sectors.

  • Joyce Linehan, Chief of Policy, Office of Mayor Martin J. Walsh
  • Trinh Nguyen, Director, Office of Workforce Development
  • John Smith, Policy Analyst, Mayor’s Office of Economic Development


The city of Charlotte is seeking address its economic mobility gap – and encourage investment and involvement of the private sector in addressing the problem – with a set of tactical programs and larger-scale economic development policy reforms. Charlotte hopes these initiatives will allow it to learn about innovative evaluation practices, identify model programs and best practices that address these challenges, better evaluate small-business capacity and connectivity, and measure whether these initiatives are helping to close the gap.

  • Ann Wall, Assistant City Manager
  • Kevin Dick, Economic Development Director, Neighborhood & Business Services, Economic Development Division
  • Holly Eskridge, Entrepreneurship and Small Business Manager, Neighborhood & Business Services, Economic Development Division


The city of Houston is seeking to focus its economic development activities in the traditionally underserved communities located generally east of downtown, which have the highest levels of unemployment, lowest levels of income and educational attainment, and represent the highest needs for job- and workforce- related programs in the city.

  • Andrew Icken, Chief Development Officer
  • Gwendolyn Tillotson, Deputy Director, Economic Development Department
  • Carnell Emanuel, Staff Analyst, Economic Development Department


The city of Memphis is seeking to address a vacancy problem in commercial buildings that also facilitates the growth of neighborhood-scale businesses. While Memphis has experienced considerable economic growth in the last decade, very little has been occurring in its low-income neighborhoods.

  • Doug McGowen, Chief Operating Officer
  • Paul Young, Director, Division of Housing and Community Development,
  • Joann Massey, Director, Office of Business Diversity and Compliance


The city of Milwaukee is seeking to create a framework that matches responsible development entities that own, renovate and manage their portfolio of foreclosed small mixed-use buildings with entrepreneurs who want to open a business in a commercial space and possibly occupy residential units in that space. The city currently owns, manages and markets a large portfolio of foreclosed properties, mostly located in distressed low-income neighborhoods.

  • Martha Brown, Deputy Commissioner, Department of City Development
  • Ken Little, Commercial Corridor Manager, Department of City Development
  • Matt Haessly, Real Estate Specialist, Department of City Development


The city of Minneapolis is seeking to pilot a capital access project for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged businesses located in north Minneapolis, where disparities are worse than the Minnesota state average. The city’s Access to Capital is a formalized program that helps provide qualified Minneapolis businesses owned by people of color with access to financial and knowledge capital at a level they have not previously had, and would not likely have but for the program. The Access to Capital program will bring together potential investors, funders and lenders to offer deal packages that provide documentation and use systems already in place to fund qualified businesses that participate in the program.

  • Craig Taylor, Director, Community Planning and Economic Development
  • David Frank, Economic Development Director
  • Jim Terrell, Senior Project Coordinator, Community Planning & Economic Development

This spring, the EED program staff is planning our next round of scoping visits to each of the cities above. These scoping visits are intended to further assist each of the six cities with their program and provide them with access to subject matter experts recruited from our networks. The visiting technical team will include subject matter experts and practitioners, EED fellows from other cities, and program staff from NLC, ULI, and Policylink. We look forward to finishing our work with our current class and announcing our next class this spring – stay tuned!

carlos_delgado_125x150About the author: Carlos Delgado is the Senior Associate for the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use at the National League of Cities.

New NLC Task Force to Focus on Expanding Economic Opportunity

Launched by NLC President Matt Zone, the task force will pursue a three-pronged strategy over the next year that will include municipal engagement and peer learning, documentation of promising and emerging city approaches, and education and training for city officials.

(Getty Images)

Cities on the NLC task force are already taking action to expand economic opportunity in many ways, such as focusing on housing affordability in high poverty neighborhoods. (Getty Images)

This post was co-authored by Courtney Coffin and Heidi Goldberg.

“Cities are where hope meets the streets.” – Mayor Kasim Reed, City of Atlanta

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s insightful words in his opening reflections as Chair of NLC’s new Task Force on Mobility and Opportunity last month recognize the vital role that city leaders must play to address the growing economic gaps that plague our cities.

NLC President Matt Zone, a Cleveland councilmember who has committed to making economic opportunity his key issue for his year as NLC’s chief elected officer, launched the task force comprised of 22 local elected officials from across the country in November. Under the leadership of Mayor Reed, the inaugural meeting marked NLC’s commitment to address economic disparities and the beginning of a three-pronged strategy over the next year that will include municipal engagement and peer learning, documentation of promising and emerging city approaches, and education and training for city officials.

As shown by discussions throughout the recent election process, although unemployment is at an all-time low, millions of financially strained families are desperate to find ways to increase their economic stability. Growing economic disparities in communities across the country highlight the need for access to well-paying jobs, housing and assets for families struggling to achieve the American Dream. These challenges are a key concern for city leaders as the financial health of a city depends on the economic security – and mobility – of its residents.

City leaders can prioritize expanding economic opportunities for residents while also balancing municipal budgets. Research from the Urban Institute has found that financially healthy families are more likely to be able to contribute consistently to local government revenues and are less likely to need city supports. City revenue streams depend on utility payments, sales and property taxes generated by residents and local businesses. If the local economy isn’t thriving and residents are not financially stable, the city as a whole suffers.

The solutions for these issues are increasingly found at the city level as policy action is often stalled at the federal and state levels. In this environment, city leaders are well-poised to stabilize their cities by serving as champions for expanding economic opportunity.

Cities are already taking action. In Pittsburgh, for example, task force member Mayor Bill Peduto is working hard to ensure that all residents can participate in the city’s revitalization and newfound prosperity. Partnering with PolicyLink, the city developed a five point plan focused on housing affordability in high poverty neighborhoods, equitable economic development, expanding employment and asset building opportunities, addressing racial inequities, and working with coalitions and community organizations to build community power.

Task force member and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh is committed to addressing poverty with an agenda focused on economic equity and inclusion. His agenda includes increasing wages and employment opportunities, business development strategies for low-income residents, wealth creation strategies including financial empowerment services and children’s savings accounts, as well as strategies to build economic mobility for youth.

These strategies and many more identified during the first task force meeting will be examined during the group’s year-long tenure. The task force is charged with identifying recommendations for local action to address common economic barriers keeping many families from sharing in our country’s prosperity.

In his first speech to members as president of NLC, Councilmember Matt Zone challenged cities to make economic mobility “a pillar that supports our work for America’s cities.” He added, “Now more than ever, the economic well-being of our families is at risk, and we, as local officials, can be the key instruments of change and economic mobility. We must build a future where every one of us has economic mobility and opportunity… we must be intentional about promoting equity in all of our policies and projects.”

About the authors:

courtney_coffin_125x150 Courtney Coffin is an associate for Economic Opportunity and Financial Empowerment in the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Contact Courtney at


heidi_goldberg_125x150Heidi Goldberg is the Director for Economic Opportunity and Financial Empowerment in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Follow Heidi on Twitter at @GoldbergHeidi.

Financial Inclusion: Helping Families Gain a Solid Financial Foothold

Our new report, City Financial Inclusion Efforts: A National Overview, highlights the growing commitment of city leaders to address the financial challenges of their residents.

Financial ed_mother and daughter_blog(Getty Images)

Mayors and other city leaders see first-hand how families in their communities are struggling to navigate today’s complex financial systems. They hear from residents regularly about how hard it is to pay all of their monthly bills, save money for their children’s education, or navigate unexpected debts that stem from a job loss or hospital visit.

One in 13 households in the U.S. do not even have a bank account – the primary way most Americans conduct their day-to-day financial transactions. City leaders know that these kinds of financial challenges can threaten the well-being of families and erode the economic base of a city.

FI_QuoteCity Financial Inclusion Efforts: A National Overview highlights research that show 65 percent of mayors and other city leaders are taking action to mitigate the financial challenges many of their residents face on a daily basis.

To combat these challenges, mayors, councilmembers and city treasurers across the country are working with community partners to help families build savings and assets, improve credit scores and expand access to safe and affordable financial services. These efforts are typically grouped under the umbrella of “financial inclusion.” BUILDINGBLOCKSsmalltable_web-version_Soren

While some cities have traditionally helped residents purchase homes or offered limited financial education classes, our survey found that more cities are now taking action to address a range of financial needs through numerous innovative financial inclusion programs. And some cities have assembled the necessary building blocks to develop comprehensive local financial inclusion systems.

Though these programs are most common in larger cities in the Northeast, smaller cities in other parts of the country are taking action, too. The report showcases cities throughout the country that are engaged in financial inclusion efforts. Columbia, S.C., for example, has created an Office of Family Financial Stability to meet their residents’ financial needs. Lansing, Mich., and Nashville, Tenn., are providing financial counseling and other services to individuals and families; and in San Francisco, every child entering public kindergarten can get a savings account for college with $50 already deposited.

CITIES_Figure01_web_dThere is tremendous potential for city government to lead the way in securing financial stability for families. By coordinating with local partners and acting as champions for their residents’ financial health, city-led financial inclusion efforts can have far-reaching impacts on local economic development.

About the Author:
Heidi Goldberg is the Director for Economic Opportunity and Financial Empowerment in the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Follow Heidi on Twitter at @GoldbergHeidi.