Five Ways Your City Can Benefit from the “Solar in Your Community” Challenge

Offering $5 million in cash prizes and technical assistance over 18 months, the Challenge supports local teams across the country in their efforts to develop programs or projects that bring solar to their communities.

There are 19 megawatts of solar installed in the city of Portland. Pictured is the Oregon Convention Center. (Jeremy Jeziorski)

This is a guest post by Odette Mucha.

In 2016, solar energy was the largest source of new generating capacity in the United States. With more than one million solar projects now operating across the country, the U.S. has over 35 gigawatts of total solar installed capacity – enough to power the equivalent of 6.5 million average American homes. This is an industry that is growing fast.

Despite this rapid growth, however, solar energy remains inaccessible to nearly half of American households and businesses, as well as many local governments and nonprofits. There are several reasons for this:

  • Nearly half of all rooftops cannot host solar due to insufficient roof space, lack of control over the roof (renters, condos), or shading.
  • While the federal Investment Tax Credit has grown the solar market, it excludes individuals and organizations with no federal tax liability, such as cities, nonprofits, low income individuals, and retirees
  • Low income populations face even greater challenges, often due to poor roof conditions, lower than average credit scores, and lack of access to affordable financing.

And yet, these communities stand to benefit the most from going solar – from stabilizing their energy costs to reducing air pollution. Cities go solar through the Solar in Your Community Challenge, a program launched by U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative to expand solar access to those who have, to date, been left out of the growing solar market.

The Solar in Your Community Challenge encourages the development of innovative financial and business models that serve low and moderate-income communities, local governments, and/or non-profits. Offering $5 million in cash prizes and technical assistance over 18 months, the Challenge supports local teams across the country in their efforts to develop programs or projects that bring solar to these segments of their communities, while proving that these business models can be widely replicated and scaled up.

Why should cities participate in the Solar in Your Community Challenge?

  1. Save Money on Municipal Electricity Bills

Local governments, which own approximately 10 percent of commercial buildings (schools, office buildings, public assembly buildings, etc.), spend approximately $14.7 billion on electricity – 12 percent of total commercial building expenditures (EIA data). Solar energy can cut cities’ monthly electricity bills and make funds available for other priorities.

  1. Create Local Jobs

The solar industry is a proven driver of job growth. As deployment has soared, so have solar jobs – there are nearly 209,000 solar workers in the U.S. today, with more than half of them in installation jobs that can’t be outsourced. Further, these workers are paid competitive wages, with installers making a median wage of $21 per hour.

  1. Help Low Income Residents

Low income households pay a large portion of their income towards electricity bills. An analysis by Groundswell found that the lowest income households spent nearly 10 percent of their income, over four times more than the average consumer. Access to low cost solar can provide price stability and bill relief to low and moderate income households.

  1. Improve Resiliency

Cities around the country are facing increased threats from natural disasters and are taking steps to plan for them. During extreme weather events, solar energy can help prevent outages, provide energy for critical facilities, and aid in recovery efforts. Solar can also provide energy to remote areas.

  1. Meet Environmental Goals

Using solar power instead of conventional forms of energy reduces the amount of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and other pollutants that are emitted into the environment. Reducing the amount of pollution translates into cleaner air, reduced water consumption, and improved health.

Cities can participate in the challenge in two ways – as part of a program team or a project team.

Program teams create new programs that enable the installation of solar for use by low income households, governmental organizations and/or nonprofits. Program Teams will be led by governments, utilities or financial institutions.

Project teams develop and install a new solar system or a portfolio of systems that benefit low income households, governmental organizations and/or nonprofits using innovative and scalable business practices. Project Teams can be led by anyone, but should include a combination of key organizations like cities, solar developers, utilities, financial institutions and community organizations.

The application deadline to participate in the Challenge is March 17, 2017. Click here to learn more about the Solar in Your Community Challenge and apply today!

odette_mucha_125x150About the author: Odette Mucha is a Technology Manager at the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative. She is the manager of the Solar in Your Community Challenge.

New Year, New Technology, New (Smarter) Cities

Fully connected smart cities are coming. NLC’s latest report helps cities prepare for their arrival by providing local leaders with best practices in this arena.

As cities grapple with how to invest in smart city technologies, and how to ensure that their cities remain on the cutting edge of this technological revolution, there are several things they should consider. (Getty Images)

Technology is changing us – and our cities – in an unprecedented way. This is not news to most, and the influence of technological developments and advances certainly isn’t a new development. We’ve all likely reflected on the impact of the smartphone once or twice. However, over the last year, discussions about just how quickly technology has asserted control over our lives, our economies, and the places we call home have become more dominant, and sometimes, more anxiety inducing. If 2016 was the year we realized that autonomous vehicles are here and happening, 2017 might be the year we realize that this is about so much more than cars.

Indeed, technology is becoming the critical force that defines the way our cities are run, managed, and evolving. This has culminated in a movement often referred to as the ‘Smart Cities’ revolution. While cities are ever-changing with technology driving their evolution, today we are seeing it impact everything from the buildings we use, to the way we get around, to how we live, work, and play in the urban space.

Now, as we are on the cusp of increasingly rapid shifts in cities precipitated by technology, it is worth imagining what the fully connected smart city of the future will look like – and the associated impact it will have on our everyday lives. To that end, the National League of Cities (NLC) is pleased to release “Trends in Smart City Development,” which presents case studies and discusses how smart cities are growing nationwide and globally. Created with our partners at the American University Department of Public Administration and Policy, this guidebook is meant to be a resource for cities as they lead the way forward in this exciting and ever-evolving space.

Cities are beginning to, and will continue to integrate technological dynamism into municipal operations, from transportation to infrastructure repair and more. As the integration of smart cities technologies becomes more visible in our everyday lives, we could begin to see large scale changes in our cities.

Let’s imagine a future where autonomous vehicles on our roadways and the data that they provide change traffic patterns and mobility networks as we know them. Similarly, as we move toward greater usage of shared vehicles and trips, we might be able to move away from parking either below buildings or on streets, enabling cities to recapture that land for new uses and development. Energy sources could be completely renewable in the smart city of the future as well, with technology paving the way for better integration into our cities and thereby helping to create a cleaner environment for everyone. Smart energy systems will allow cities to collect information from sources such as smart water, electric, and gas meters.

At the same time, our future cities will be safer with streetlight networks that use embedded sensors to detect gunshots or flash their lights during emergencies. These are just some of the possibilities that loom on the horizon for cities, and more, improved applications are being developed daily.

csarsmartcitiesinfographic

As cities grapple with how to invest in smart cities technology, and how to ensure that their cities remain on the cutting edge of this technological revolution, there are several things they should consider:

  • Rather than looking for solutions first, cities should consider the outcomes they want to achieve. They should find out what their residents and local businesses want to see happen, and turn those desires into clearly defined objectives before proceeding with smart initiatives. A city’s existing comprehensive, transportation, and sustainability planning documents can help guide the establishment of goals.
  • Partnerships may be the key to successfully deploying new smart cities systems. In an era when the first question is “how?” and the second question “how much?” cities need to get creative about how to deploy expensive, large scale projects like these. Partnerships provide many benefits to cities. They give cities access to funding and expertise that might not otherwise be available. Many public problems are complex and can be too diverse for any single organization to tackle. That makes collaboration advantageous, as cities and organizations are often able to do more together than they could alone.
  • Keep up with new developments and standards. The diversity in technology and the lack of agreed upon principles for redesigning the built environment presents a challenge for interested cities. The newness of smart development means that not much has been codified. Though this report provides a window into what some cities are doing now, smart development is a rapidly changing field. Cities interested in becoming smart should continue to look for best practices and frameworks for this type of development.

All of this is predicated on the premise that technologies can help make people’s lives better in cities. At the end of the day, technological developments will enhance our urban experience – but they also risk leaving more people behind. To this end, we must be deliberate in the development of smart cities and imbue equity as a primary goal so that the city of the future is a city for everyone.

Fully connected smart cities are coming, and NLC wants to help cities prepare for their arrival by providing local leaders with best practices in this arena. It is our hope that this report will spark conversation and action among local policymakers about how to incorporate these strategies into their own communities.

Read the full Smart City Development report.

Read the full Trends in Smart City Development report.

About the author: Nicole DuPuis is the Principal Associate for Urban Innovation in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.

What I Learned at the U.S.-China Low-Carbon Cities Summit in Beijing

As Pinecrest, Florida, Mayor Cindy Lerner notes, confronting climate issues and reducing carbon emissions requires global participation at the local level.

(Getty Images)

Through the U.S. State Department, cities like Beijing have signed collaborative agreements with American NGOs to expand green business and trade opportunities and enhance cooperation in areas such as climate-smart buildings, solar tech, and low-emissions transport. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Pinecrest, Florida, Mayor Cindy Lerner.

Last year, I was invited to be a member of the U.S. Compact of Mayors delegation to the first U.S.-China Climate Leaders Summit, held in Los Angeles. The invitation from the White House was based on my leadership in the National League of Cities as the Chair of the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee. The 2015 Summit hosted 30 U.S. mayors and dozens of city leaders from China, each of whom presented on local efforts to reduce carbon emissions by advancing energy efficiencies, investing in renewable energy, and expanding transit in our cities. And it was remarkable to learn of the dozens of projects going on in cities throughout China that relied on renewable energy and focused on significantly reducing carbon emissions.

This year, the Chinese reciprocated by hosting the 2016 U.S.-China Climate-Smart / Low-Carbon Cities Summit in Beijing. I attended as one of a dozen U.S. mayors, with Bloomberg Philanthropies underwriting the costs of our travel and participation. Also at the summit were leaders from 49 Chinese cities and provinces as well as Secretary of State John Kerry, Deputy Secretary of Energy Elizabeth Sherwood Randall, a number of representatives from the State Department, and many NGO groups from the United States whose main mission is to advance clean energy. The Summit was an opportunity for U.S. and Chinese city leaders to exchange best practices on climate issues and support public-private partnerships to develop climate solutions.

Deputy Secretary Randall was a keynote speaker, and she recognized that cities and local leaders are leading the way as incubators for developing solutions. She also noted that cities are responsible for 70 percent of carbon emissions, so city leaders feel a fierce urgency to address these challenges. She announced that the U.S. government has made a commitment to double the national investment in clean energy by $12.8 billion a year to develop clean technologies, and is partnering with private investment firms, led by Bill Gates, to mobilize private industry.

Mayors from China and the United States gather at the

City leaders gather at the U.S.-China Climate-Smart / Low-Carbon Cities Summit in Beijing.

Secretary of State Kerry spoke about the significant partnership he has built with the Chinese Minister in charge of climate change and the collaborative nature of their shared commitments to advance clean energy throughout both countries. And U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baccus concluded the Summit by sharing that climate change and carbon reduction has been a significant component of the work going on between the two countries.

Mayors from great cities like Phoenix, Berkley, California, Boston, New York and Portland are all making significant investments in transit and clean energy, and have established ambitious goals to be carbon neutral by 2050. We also heard from many Chinese mayors who are piloting new clean and renewable energy programs and setting goals to significantly reduce carbon emissions and promote flexibility to adapt to climate change. Through the U.S. State Department, many mega-cities in China have signed collaborative agreements with many of the NGOs currently working in U.S. to provide technical resources and help monitor progress.

I learned that these ambitious efforts to address carbon reduction exist at the highest levels of government on a global scale – and that, at the same time, all of these efforts rely on the most local levels of government to ensure that real change takes place from the ground up. I also learned that it is up to each one of us – elected officials, community leaders, and business executives alike – to make commitments to decarbonize our cities, counties, states and, ultimately, our nations.

About the Author: Mayor Cindy Lerner has been mayor of Pinecrest, Florida, since 2008, and previously served in the Florida House of Representatives from 2000 to 2002, when her district was eliminated due to redistricting. She chaired the NLC Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee in 2015 and was President of the Miami-Dade County League of Cities in 2014.

How the City of Fort Collins is Making Community Resiliency a Reality

“Our city’s leaders believe that assessing and improving resilience offers assurance to our citizens, businesses, and other stakeholders that our community will be stronger and a better place to live.”

(Getty Images)

Guided in part by a new resilience planning guide, the city of Fort Collins, Colorado, has made a commitment to consider the impacts of policies and regulations on the economic, environmental and social health of the community. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Fort Collins, Colorado, Mayor Pro Tem Gerry Horak.

Fort Collins has learned some valuable lessons about resilience owing to its exposure to extreme weather events that reinforced our vulnerability to the forces of nature, including climate change. These events have reminded us just how important planning can be in confronting potential disasters. Heeding the warnings, we are in the midst of comprehensive resilience planning efforts and taking actions to improve the quality of life and avoid the loss of lives and livelihoods. Our efforts also may help other communities in dealing with natural, technological, and human-caused hazard events that could become disasters.

Why Communities Need Greater Resiliency

In 1997, a devastating Spring Creek flood killed five people in our community.

In 2012, the High Park Fire on the edge of our community was recorded as the third worst fire in the state in one of the hottest years on record.

One year later, the community – and entire region – experienced flooding of biblical proportions with 12 inches of rain in two days. We normally receive about 17 inches a year. The wildfire scarring from the 2012 fire exacerbated the impact of the flooding in 2013. Fortunately, we had taken action after the 1997 flood; Fort Collins upgraded culverts, built pre-sedimentation basins to separate particulates from raw water before it entered the water treatment plant, and integrated our Flood Management Plan with strong local regulations. Those efforts paid off. We sustained only minor property damage after the 2013 event, despite its magnitude.

In 2014, a study showed that the number of our extremely hot days has increased over 20 years. It revealed that Fort Collins had experienced twice as many 90-degree days in the past 14 years as it had in the previous 39 years – a wakeup call for how the city and our citizens will need to adapt to a changing climate.

resilience_plan_500x1250Fort Collins is Taking Action

Clearly, we needed to do something to deal with prospects of future weather- and climate-related challenges that put our community at greater risk.

“We learned many important lessons from the 1997 Spring Creek flood that devastated our community,” says Mike Gavin, Emergency Manager for the City of Fort Collins and Battalion Chief for Poudre Fire Authority. “We worked hard to mitigate future impacts by improving our processes and infrastructure, but must be vigilant to reduce risk when possible. The more tools we have, the more versatile we will be when something happens. From different resiliency and risk management models, we’ll pick and choose new methods or upgrades for components and systems to assist continuous improvement,” according to Gavin.

All communities rely on an evolving and interconnected network of buildings, energy, communications, transportation, and water and wastewater systems. Because of the high cost of recovering from disruptions and disasters, the need for communities to be more resilient is not just a local issue, but is also important at the regional, state and national levels.

Communities that are more resilient experience less physical, financial and psychological impacts from events – and they have a shorter and smoother recovery. Our city’s leaders believe that assessing and improving resilience offers assurance to our citizens, businesses, and other stakeholders that our community will be stronger and a better place to live. It’s part of the “resilience dividend.”

Building on previous steps to reach the next level, in 2016 Fort Collins was one of only 12 areas selected by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to receive a Regional Resilience Assessment. This planning process considers impacts and mitigates risks to our buildings and our critical infrastructure from natural, technological and human-caused hazards.

Multiple partners are involved to assist Fort Collins through this process, including:

  • DHS Office of Infrastructure Protection
  • Idaho National Laboratory
  • Larimer County
  • Colorado State University
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

Working with NIST

Unifying this process, Fort Collins is using the NIST Community Resilience Planning Guide for Buildings and Infrastructure Systems in a pilot program to develop a long-term resilience plan. We are among the first to test the full NIST six-step planning process.

A sample of how a community might use the NIST guide.

A sample of how a community might use the NIST guide to assess the recovery time of its critical facilities.

The NIST process is intended to help communities by:

  • Setting performance goals for vital social functions, like healthcare, education and public safety, and supporting buildings and infrastructure systems – transportation, energy, communications, and water and wastewater.
  • Recognizing that the community’s social and economic needs and functions should drive goal-setting for how the built environment performs.
  • Providing a comprehensive method to align community priorities and resources with resilience goals.

This vision fits Fort Collins’ commitment to the triple bottom line – to consider the impacts of policies and regulations on the economic, environmental and social health of the community. Working with our partners on this project we expect to obtain a complete characterization of the community’s built environment, dependencies among social services, and identification of prevailing hazards. This should lead to the development of long-term goals for improving community resilience and an action plan with identified strategies and periodic progress evaluation. Importantly, this plan will be integrated with our other community planning efforts.

We don’t expect overnight miracles, and our resources are limited. We know that resilience takes place over time. Fortunately, hazards are not an everyday occurrence, and actions to improve resilience can offer immediate dividends beyond resiliency. That’s why we are planning now and moving forward in ways that reflect our community’s priorities. The NIST Guide is a very helpful tool for doing just that.

Click here for more information about the NIST process.

Gerry Horak is Mayor Pro-Tem in Fort Collins and a member of the NLC Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee. He can be reached at ghorak@fcgov.com.

New SolSmart Program Helps Cities Go Solar, Create Jobs

SolSmart offers cities no-cost technical assistance to improve access and affordability of local solar projects. Launched on April 27 by the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities and a team of organizations, the new designation program will recognize the efforts of cities, towns, and counties to implement best practices and promote solar energy.

Since 2010, the average price of solar panels dropped by more than 60 percent. (Getty Images)

The solar industry is one of the fastest growing markets in America, providing middle class jobs and clean, affordable energy. In 2015, the U.S. solar market set a record for system installations with 7.286 gigawatts of solar photovoltaics coming online. That’s a lot of solar panels producing a lot of energy. In fact, that represents 26 percent of all new electricity brought online in the U.S. in 2015—nearly equal to the boom in natural gas. It’s a record that is likely to be smashed in 2016.

Much of the expansion so far has been driven by rapidly falling prices. Since 2010, the average price of solar panels dropped by more than 60 percent. In fact, prices have fallen so much that permitting, inspection, interconnection fees, zoning approval, project delays, and other ‘soft costs’ now account for more than half of the price tag for an average residential solar system—a share that continues to grow. To make things worse, many of the local rules and regulations behind these soft costs vary from city to city, making it difficult for the industry to expand or scale up operations.

So how can your community improve access and spark a local solar market?

The new SolSmart program aims to help cities and counties remove regulatory barriers and capture the economic opportunities associated with solar energy. Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative and led by The Solar Foundation, ICMA, and others, the program will provide national recognition to leading solar cities and counties.

The SolSmart scorecard aligns best practices on topics such as permitting, financing, zoning, and public education. Earning a higher score will help your city lower the price of solar energy, cut unnecessary red tape, and streamline the process for residents and businesses.

Even more, the program will help communities become solar leaders by providing no-cost technical assistance to complete additional criteria and achieve designation.

To get more information about the program or to find out how your city can pursue designation, submit your name, city, and email address on the form here:

About the Author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

Sandy Recovery Highlights Resilience Lessons

Graffiti in New York following the devastation cased by Hurricane Sandy. (photo: Ayasha Guerin/inhabitat.com)

Graffiti in New York following the devastation cased by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (photo: Ayasha Guerin / inhabitat.com)

The Chen residence in the Midland Beach neighborhood of Staten Island is occupied once again. During the 2012 superstorm known as Hurricane Sandy, the Chen home was inundated with 10 feet of flood water, as were other residences in the Midland and New Dorp Beach areas. As of March 2015, the Chen family is back in a restored home thanks to New York’s Build It Back program and the partnership with IBTS (Institute for Building Technology and Safety), an National League of Cities Corporate Partner.

The completed Chen house. (photo: james Brooks)

The completed Chen house. (photo: james Brooks)

The Chen home and others like it have new siding, enhanced insulation and better fire resiliency measures. The property is also raised twelve feet above the ground. The critical measure is that the property is well above both the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) and the Design Flood Elevation (DFE). This means that even if the property is on a flood plain, flood insurance is not required.

The City of New York, working through its Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), established the Build It Back program to coordinate, streamline and evaluate the recovery effort. IBTS is one of the largest contractors serving the city in the areas of architectural and structural assessments, rehabilitation or reconstruction design, contract management and reporting, and final inspections for single family homes.

Visiting the hardest hit neighborhoods on Staten Island and in the Gerritsen Beach area of Brooklyn is an experience both similar and different from visiting neighborhoods in New Orleans hit by Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. The topography is familiar, and it’s the first sign that these beach bungalows are susceptible to a rising tide. Although the beach dunes rise up from the shoreline, once the waters crest the dunes and flow across Staten Island’s Father Capodanno Boulevard, the landscape drops away another 10-20 feet. Flooding in this area continued nearly a mile inland to Hylan Boulevard.

Build It Back is a massive project. Through March 2015, nearly 26,000 registrants have applied for the program. From Queens, where Breezy Point is located, there are 11,374 registrants. Staten Island has 5,782 registrants, and Brooklyn has 7,968. Eligible homes can have both exterior and interior storm damage repaired. Where appropriate, homes and utility lines are elevated above flood levels as well.

To date, the IBTS team has received contracts to carry out 483 housing elevations. Of these, 253 have received home owner reviews, 198 have received elevation designs for approval, 139 have had construction documents turned over to the city Department of Buildings, and 106 have received permit approvals.

Mr. & Mrs. Slaven with the contractors. (photo: Jim Brooks)

Mr. & Mrs. Slaven with IBTS contractors. In the background sits the Slaven house on cribbing. (photo: James Brooks)

The drama in the story is not in the numbers, but in the first-hand accounts told by residents such as Mr. Francis and Mrs. Lauren Slaven of Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn. Today, their house sits atop 12-foot timber cribbing waiting to be permanently set on its new foundation. A gregarious and talkative woman, Mrs. Slaven is vivid in her recounting of swimming to safety in the face of Sandy. She even managed to save her dog, but lost a pet bird in the ordeal. They will return to their renovated home shortly.

The results of the recovery work thus far have helped drive some innovations both in the management of CDBG Disaster Recovery funds and in the design specifications for home elevations. For example, with support from HUD, IBTS developed a unit price contractor procurement model for CDBG-DR housing rehabilitation and/or reconstruction. IBTS is applying these lessons to the balance of their Build It Back work, bringing a considerable level of savings to New York City storm recovery efforts and also to new work awarded by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) on Long Island.

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.

The Arts Mean Business

This is a guest post by Jay H. Dick, Senior Director of State and Local Government Affairs at Americans for the Arts.

Meyerson_Symphony_Center_Dallas_1_fullsizeThe Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas, is a visually spectacular example of the type of anchor for economic development that can be achieved when city governments invest in arts and culture initiatives. (photo: Matt Clarkson)

If your city had a new construction company move to town, this would be good news – more jobs, more economic activity, and more tax revenues to be collected. How about if your city received funding from your state to widen a road? Again, you would probably welcome this news with open arms. Now, think about a new arts organization moving to town. Would you look at this group with the same economic lens that you used to look at the construction or transportation business?

If your answer was no, here’s why you should!

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) with the National Endowment for the Arts recently released their second annual report measuring the arts and culture sector’s contributions to U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). This year’s report found that the arts and culture sector represented 4.32 percent of the GDP – a higher percentage than tourism (2.6 percent), transportation (2.7 percent) and construction (3.4 percent) – at $698.7 billion!

(Americans for the Arts)

In other words, the arts and culture sector have a larger impact on your economy (in terms of GDP) than these other industries. The unfortunate problem is that we don’t readily recognize the economic value and impact of the arts. Luckily, more research is being done on this topic by groups such as the BEA and by organizations like mine, Americans for the Arts.

For example, did you know that, according to our Arts and Economic Prosperity IV study, the nonprofit arts are a $135 billion industry that supports over 4 million full-time equivalent jobs? Further, the nonprofit arts contribute $22 billion dollars in tax revenue, of which $6.07 billion is collected at the local level. Given that most local governments (that Americans for the Arts has studied) appropriate less than they receive in tax revenue, the arts are a wonderful investment!

Our Creative Industries: Business & Employment in the Arts reports provide a research-based approach to understanding the scope and economic importance of the arts in America. Nationally, 702,771 businesses are involved in the creation or distribution of the arts, and they directly employ 2.9 million people. This represents 3.9 percent of all U.S. businesses and 1.9 percent of all U.S. employees – demonstrating statistically that the arts are a formidable business presence and are broadly distributed across our communities. Arts businesses and the creative people they employ stimulate innovation, strengthen America’s competitiveness in the global marketplace, and play an important role in building and sustaining economic vibrancy. In addition to our national numbers, there are downloadable maps on our website of every state, federal legislative district, state legislative district, counties and some larger cities.

Cities of all sizes that, even minimally, invest in their local arts organizations can see economic benefits. For example, over 300 cities have created cultural districts to foster the economic viability of their downtown. Cultural districts are a well-recognized, labeled, mixed-use area of a city in which a high concentration of cultural facilities serves as the anchor of attraction and robust economic activity.

The Playhouse Square Center in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. (Getty Images)

According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Ohio, the Cleveland Playhouse Square’s downtown economic impact has been impressive. For every one dollar spent in ticket sales, $2.20 is generated in additional expenditures to the local economy. In a five-year period, 79 new businesses moved downtown, and the cost of downtown office space nearly doubled.

In the late 1990s, Paducah, Ky. had a problem – an area of the city, LowerTown, was run down. Fifty percent of homes were dilapidated; 73 percent of homes were renter-occupied; and there was a 17 percent unemployment rate with 51 percent of people living in poverty. To tackle the problem, city leaders came up with a unique plan: the Artist Relocation Program. City leaders partnered with banks and other businesses and reached out nationally to artists to invite them to move to Paducah. The program would offer them a very low-interest loan if they bought a house, agreed to make improvements, worked as an artist out of their house, and lived there for at least five years.

Dixie Leather Works, located in the LowerTown arts disctrict of Paducah, Ky. (photo: Paducah Visitors Bureau)

Dixie Leather Works, located in the LowerTown Arts District of Paducah, Ky. (photo: Paducah Visitors Bureau)

Ten years later, dilapidated homes have fallen to 3 percent; the renter-occupied rate is down to 15 percent; unemployment is down to 6 percent; and the number of people living in poverty has been reduced to 4 percent. This is all a direct result of the Artist Relocation Program.

These are just a few examples of how the arts and culture can help your city’s economy. The great thing about the arts is they are already in your city. The arts, unlike many industries, are not going to relocate overseas or to a different city. The arts are committed to serving your city’s residents and improving the quality of life. But what they do need are community leaders to recognize them as an industry worthy of both private and public sector support. So, please contact your local arts groups. Get to know them, understand their programming, and how they work to improve your city. And if you have any questions, feel free to contact me directly – I would love to help.

Jay H. DickAbout the Author: Jay H. Dick is the Senior Director of State and Local Government Affairs at Americans for the Arts, an organization which serves, advances and leads diverse networks of organizations and individuals who cultivate, promote, sustain and support the arts in America. Americans for the Arts has partnered with NLC for almost 20 years on a variety of programs.

Retention and Attraction Strategies for a Balanced Retail Sector

This is a recap from Big Ideas for Small Business, NLC’s national peer network helping local governments accelerate effort to support small businesses and encourage entrepreneurship. To learn more, email robbins@nlc.org.

Empress of China SFNeighborhood institutions, such as the Empress of China restaurant in San Francisco, are often forced to close their doors due to escalating rent prices – but city leaders can balance retention and attraction strategies to sustain a healthy and diverse local business community. (Image courtesy reelsf.com)

Small businesses in some San Francisco neighborhoods are “disappearing as fast as an artisanal ice cube in a $14 craft cocktail” because of a development boom that’s turning neighborhood institutions, like the Empress of China and Lombardi Sports, into housing units. In Washington, D.C., local shops like Jak & Co. Hairdressers are closing their doors due to escalating rent prices.

At the same time, though, Cleveland has found it difficult to attract a full-scale grocery store downtown. Fort Worth also recently struggled to attract a retailer to a lower-income and underdeveloped neighborhood of the city.

What’s happening in these scenarios is nothing new. The real estate industry tends to develop where demand and buying power are high enough to create a return on investment. Even though cities don’t have direct control over the private real estate market, there are indeed strategies local governments can implement to create equity across neighborhood retail sectors.

City leaders should find the right balance between retention and attraction strategies to sustain a healthy and diverse local business community across all neighborhoods. Business retention strategies help existing local businesses keep their doors open. Business attraction strategies encourage or promote business growth in areas that wouldn’t otherwise be considered viable options for investment.

Achieving the right balance can undoubtedly be a complicated and ongoing process. Cities from NLC’s Big Ideas for Small Business peer network recently shared some of their local best practices.

Business Retention

 Legislating to preserve legacy businesses.  San Francisco is considering Legacy Business Legislation that would help retain local businesses in their original location by providing incentives to both the business and property owners. The businesses affected by this legislation are mom-and-pop restaurants, bars, and other small retailers operating in the city for at least 30 years. In recent years, these historic retailers have been “swallowed up” by the city’s development boom.

Providing business owners with site relocation assistance. For existing businesses that can no longer afford their leases, the choices are either to close up shop or relocate to a different neighborhood. Retail site selection tools, like the Retail Site Search from the Washington DC Economic Partnership (WDCEP), catalogue all of the available commercial spaces in the city. Every year, the WDCEP works with several business owners to choose a new, more affordable site for their business. The WDCEP tracks data on new business licenses that provides a unique vantage point into areas where businesses are growing and commercial rents are likely to rise.

Business Attraction

Partnering with a public hospital to build a grocery store in a food desert. Grocery stores are one of the more difficult types of retail for cities to attract in underserved areas. A public hospital in Kansas City, Mo., is supporting the construction of a grocery store in a section of the city that is now considered a food desert. The hospital’s vision is to provide access to fresh, affordable produce so that local residents are healthier and need fewer emergency room visits. Once it’s opened, the hospital will take over the management of the grocery store and offer classes on food and nutrition.

Using vacant space for pop-up retail. Temporarily filling vacant commercial corridors with pop-up retail businesses benefits the local economy in two ways. First, it reinvigorates the neighborhood by attracting visitors and customers, and can help reestablish the neighborhood as a “hot spot” for new businesses or development. Additionally, pop-up spaces provide local entrepreneurs the chance to test their products and skills in a low-risk environment. San Antonio’s OPEN initiative provides entrepreneurs with short-term leases in vacant downtown spaces, and aims to “authenticate downtown as a vibrant urban space, ready for long-term investment.” The Pop-Up Project in San Jose also connects retailers to vacant or underutilized downtown space.

A mix of these types of retention and attraction strategies will help ensure that all businesses have the chance to be successful, and that all neighborhoods have affordable goods and services available for residents.

Robbins_small (2)About the author: Emily Robbins is the Senior Associate of Finance and Economic Development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter: @robbins617.

Regulatory Reform, Data Analytics and Local Food Systems: This Month in Economic Development

Our monthly roundup of the latest news in economic development filtered through a city-focused lens. Reading something interesting? Share it with @robbins617.

boston_1_fullsizeCities like Boston have recently begun a new chapter in economic development by taking an innovative approach to regulatory compliance, creating a win-win scenario in which the community is protected and businesses are encouraged to contribute to a vibrant, healthy economy. (Getty Images)

Grab your scissors, it’s time to cut red tape for local businesses. Whether it’s the dizzying paper trail, inexplicable permitting or licensing requirements, or an arbitrary approval timeline, the local regulatory process is ripe for reform. NLC profiled the three key strategies for untangling the knots of business regulations, and also highlighted how several cities are using a “more carrot, less stick” approach. Mayor Martin J. Walsh wrote a guest blog post for NLC on how he is making Boston more business friendly, including building an online permitting system. The Ash Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School recently launched a comprehensive, online guide to help cities plan out their own regulatory reform initiatives. (Side note, here’s a great article from The Week on other ways cities can support businesses).

Data analytics is driving more effective economic development… There were a couple great stories this past month about how data analytics is improving local government outcomes, particularly for economic development. For example, Transit Labs is partnering with Detroit to use city data to improve inefficient bus routes. Also Louisville and Raleigh are among a group of cities using public feedback on the restaurant review website Yelp to prioritize health inspections for businesses.

…and collecting city data is more valuable than ever. The data analytics movement is creating new dialogue around what is the most effective data for cities to collect and analyze. To this end, Smart Incentives shared advice on how to measure the actual impact of economic development incentive agreements, not just the costs associated with them. The Kauffman Foundation also released a briefing on the four best indicators to measure a city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. (NLC also has a performance management guidebook for cities).

Pioneering local food systems. Creating a local food ecosystem is a win-win situation for food providers and community member. The city of Portland, Maine, is emerging as a pioneer in the local food system scene. Mayor Michael Brennan developed the Healthy Sustainable Food Systems Initiative a couple years ago pledging that 50 percent of food at public schools, universities, and hospitals will be from local sources. To help other cities create their own local food ecosystems, the Council of Development Finance Agencies (CDFA) recently held a course on financing local food systems (follow @CDFA_Update to find out when it will be offered again).

Local government is still the leader in public sector job growth. This month’s Local Jobs Report found that, once again, local government is leading public sector job growth. Both federal and state governments lost jobs, but local government gained 3,000 jobs in March. Our analysis also reviews monthly employment trends from 2008 to now, and looks at whether or not cities are hiring back public safety positions that were lost after the recession due to budget cuts.

Religious freedom in Indiana? Talk about voting with your feet. In the wake of Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s passage of a controversial new religious freedom law, the business community is responding by cancelling expansion plans and prohibiting travel to the state. Angie’s List, headquartered in Indianapolis, is delaying a planned $40 million expansion set to create 1,000 local jobs over the next five years until the law’s ramifications are made clear. The list of other organizations that are banning activity in Indiana includes major companies like Apple, Salesforce, and Yelp. Meanwhile, Governor Pence is working to clarify the intent of the law, and its supporters are explaining that similar legislation already exists in 19 states without comparable pushback.

For a laugh. Or maybe for a shudder. The city of Austin wants you to visit its cemeteries. No, really. The city is developing a master plan for its burial grounds to turn the abandoned (and perhaps creepy?) spaces into public places where people choose to visit. The city’s plans include gravestone repairs, public programming, and other revitalization efforts.

What we’re reading. HuffPo column on how McDonald’s is fighting Seattle’s new minimum wage law. San Francisco Fed’s analysis of whether or not place-based policies like enterprise zones create jobs. A thought piece from Jerry Newfarmer on why people, not technology, are the unsung heroes of innovation in cities.

(Read the previous monthly roundups from January and February.)

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About the author: Emily Robbins is the Senior Associate of Finance and Economic Development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter: @robbins617.

2015 National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation Starts April 1

This is a guest post by Steve Creech.

mayor's challenge for water conservationCities with the highest participation in the 2015 National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation not only discover ways they can reduce the strain on water systems, but they qualify to win over $100,000 in prizes as well. (photo: The Wyland Foundation)

Water shortages may be one of the most dramatic headlines in the news, but cities everywhere are facing mounting challenges to the tune of nearly $1 trillion to address aging water systems, eliminate water waste, and secure a legacy of sustainable water use for our communities.

The National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation gives local governments a consumer-friendly way to rev up residential interest in addressing those issues, from promoting water and energy efficiency to waste reduction and ecosystem health. Held annually from April 1-30, the nonprofit challenge encourages cities nationwide to see who can be the most “water-wise.”

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings (pictured) and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will join together in Dallas on April 9 to promote the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation. (photo: The Wyland Foundation)

Mayors rally residents to take action by pledging to conserve more water and other natural resources at mywaterpledge.com. Residents, in turn, rally their families, friends, colleagues and neighbors. Cities with the highest participation not only discover ways they can reduce the strain on water systems, they qualify to win over $100,000 in prizes, including efficient irrigation products, water-saving appliances, and even a Grand Prize Toyota Prius Plug-in. The campaign gets national promotion all month long in USA Today, and winning cities are recognized in a special segment on the Weather Channel with Al Roker. There’s even a classroom edition for schools.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, winner of the 2013 Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation. (photo: The Wyland Foundation)

The campaign is presented nationally by the Wyland Foundation and Toyota, with support from the U.S. EPA, the National League of Cities, and the Toro Company. During the most recent campaign, mayors, city leaders and local water utilities led an effort among residents across 3,600 cities in all 50 states to take 277,742 specific actions over the following year to change the way they use water in their homes, yards and communities.

Translated, those online pledges meant potential reductions in water waste by 1.4 billion gallons. As residents conserve, it also means less money spent on transporting and generating the electricity that brings water to homes, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and less impact on the nation’s already overburdened water infrastructure.

Best of all, supplemental outreach campaigns like the Mayor’s Challenge bring together elected officials, companies, communities and individuals working together to protect and conserve the limited supply of water we have for the future health of our economy and environment.

Cities can participate in the 2015 National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation by signing an online letter of support, which includes complete details about the program, or by calling (949) 643-7070 to request participation information.

Headshot1-CMartinAbout the Author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at the NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.