Real progress, optimism mark Working Cities Challenge in 2018 Real progress, optimism mark Working Cities Challenge in 2018

Proven results, new neighborhoods and moves toward expansion highlight busy year Proven results, new neighborhoods and moves toward expansion highlight busy year

December 27, 2018

It’s been five years since we at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston initiated a grant competition that we named the Working Cities Challenge and gave a clear objective: help people in struggling, post-industrial communities address chronic problems by building leadership and collaboration across sectors on shared goals.

Progress since has been impressive. In 2018, an independent evaluator gave a final assessment of our inaugural challenge. The finding? The Working Cities model works. Our success has led us to branch out to new states and communities and look for ways to expand our cross-sector collaborative model in places that aren’t cities at all. More details and highlights from 2018 follow: 

Proven progress

The Working Cities cross-sector model brings together private business, the state, and nonprofits to tackle challenges such as crime, economic mobility, and workforce development. The program is administered by the Boston Fed and funded entirely by the state, private sector, and regional and national philanthropies. In 2018, the first four Massachusetts cities to win Working Cities Challenge grants saw those grants sunset, which gave us an opportunity to see if the results measured up to the promise of our model. 

Our independent evaluator, Mt. Auburn Associates, conducted a broad assessment, and the results were unambiguous: Each city saw measurable success, each dramatically changed the way they partner across sectors, and each installed structures that will help sustain long-term, systemic change. 

In Chelsea, the Chelsea Thrives team worked to identify and serve families with acute risk of crime, with 10-year goal to reduce crime by 30 percent. More than 205 people at a high risk of committing a crime were contacted by authorities in early intervention efforts. Meanwhile, 23 agencies convene weekly to identify and divert individuals and families with health issues, drug problems and other risk factors that contribute to crime. Their model is being expanded to communities across Massachusetts.

The Lawrence Working Families Initiative transformed local workforce opportunities for parents of students. It connected 200 people to higher paying jobs and nearly 650 families to services that combine supports and providers to help children with complex needs. Today, employers are creating training programs for local workers, and new models are helping people secure higher paying jobs.  

In Fitchburg, the Reimagine North of Main initiative opened a $100 million pipeline of new investment opportunities as it focused resources and effort on redeveloping that struggling neighborhood and the downtown in ways that benefit residents first.

Holyoke’s SPARK Initiative is dedicated to jump-starting Latino-owned business. Its initial efforts supported 70 entrepreneurs who established 33 new ventures and 82 new jobs, filled primarily by Latino and women residents.


New communities

The first years of the challenge took us around Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and in 2018 we completed a move to Connecticut that we launched two years ago. Our efforts there have been inspired by a dynamic steering committee made up of 20 top leaders from government, philanthropic organizations, business, and nonprofits. They selected Connecticut’s five new Working Cities in 2018.

Danbury, East Hartford, Hartford, Middletown, and Waterbury each won $450,000 multi-year grants after presenting proposals to increase economic equality and improve the lives of low- and moderate-income residents. Each winner is committed to discrete goals:

  • Danbury seeks to reduce the number of immigrants and people of color who are in poverty by 30 percent within 10 years.
  • East Hartford looks to improve the quality of life in the Silver Lane neighborhood by improving access to workforce development and educational resources.
  • Hartford plans to tackle poverty and workforce education, and seeks to attract and retain employers to the city.
  • Middletown aims to reduce the percentage of single-parent families living at or below the federal poverty level from 35 percent to 20 percent over a 10-year period.
  • Waterbury will address the economic and racial inequalities that have devalued the once-vibrant River Baldwin neighborhood

Expanding north

As the initiative takes root in some of Connecticut’s older industrial cities, we have our eyes on different types of communities in different places. Specifically, we’re expecting to launch the Working Communities Challenge in a northern New England state in early 2019.

The landscapes of rural areas may look different from older cities, but the problems can be just as critical. We believe the cross-sector partnerships that have sparked progress and innovation in cities around New England can offer answers in small-town settings, as well.

Local ingenuity

As we celebrate a successful 2018, I want to thank the dedicated staff at the Boston Fed, and the hundreds of terrific local leaders at the program’s foundation. The Boston Fed’s Working Cities Challenge staff doesn’t create the gains we’re seeing, we support the talents and ingenuity of the leaders already in these places. We believe this program can become a national model, and a visit by several Federal Reserve presidents to the Working City of Lowell in November gave us an opportunity to make the case that the cross-sector collaboration that has brought results here can work around the country.

The Working Cities Challenge made encouraging and measurable progress this year, but I believe we are just beginning to tap the potential of our communities to take on tough, seemingly intractable problems and spark improvements that benefit everyone.

Tamar Kotelchuck is an assistant vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and head of the Working Cities initiatives.