The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Oct 16, 2012

St. Paul residents get their say, in a rail line and their future

Posted by Elizabeth R. Miller

The following is part of a series of reports on Knight Foundation's work in the communities where it invests. Above: Light rail will come to St. Paul's Central Corridor neighborhoods in 2014 joining with the Minneapolis Hiawatha line pictured here.

When St. Paul’s leaders decided to build a new light rail line connecting the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the idea was to help ease commuting and strengthen the local economy. Like many transportation projects across the country, however, the huge, $950 million Central Corridor Light Rail Line could have the unintended effect of destroying the neighborhoods of poor and working class residents living alongside it. 

St. Paul At a Glance

Founded: 1849
City Population: 288,448
Regional Population (including Minneaplis): 3.3 million
Median Household Income: $45,439

Diversity Demographics

Caucasian/White: 60.1%
African-American: 15.7%            Asian: 15%                               Hispanic: 9.6%

Age Demographics 

under 24: 38.9%
25-44: 30%
45+ 31.1%

Knight active grants portfolio: 27 projects totaling $10.35 million

With Knight Foundation’s leadership, local and national foundations established a coalition to ensure that new development along the corridor would benefit residents and local businesses in addition to attracting new ones. The Central Corridor Funders Collaborative is supporting diverse planning teams that bring together, sometimes for the very first time, government officials, neighborhood advocates, nonprofit leaders, community developers and small business owners to arrive at shared solutions. They are working on key issues directly with the neighborhoods that have the most to gain or lose from this major infrastructure project. These include supporting small businesses during construction, increasing affordable housing, being sure the community has increased access to jobs along the line and is reflected in the workforce doing the construction. The line is expected to be completed in 2014.

This work is emblematic of Knight’s commitment to creating informed, engaged communities — residents armed with the data and the networks they need to act in their own true interests.

It is a much needed change from how large scale transit projects were done in the past, explains Polly Talen, Knight’s program director in St. Paul and co-chair of the Funders Collaborative. Construction of the I-94 freeway more than 50 years ago devastated a predominantly African American neighborhood and commercial district along Rondo Avenue. Once the thriving heart of the black community, it fragmented when thousands of residents were displaced and local businesses were destroyed.

That lesson is at the forefront of the Funders Collaborative’s support of a diverse and collaborative planning process. The group feels strongly that who is involved and how they are involved is critical and as a result is central to what it funds. The collaborative has already invested $6.2 million along the 11-mile line and leveraged many times that, according to Executive Director Jonathan Sage-Martinson.

The Funders Collaborative works with many partners, including the Twin Cities’ program of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national community development organization, which considers improving life for residents along the new rail corridor to be central to its work. It recently led a highly participative process with community members to produce a plan for affordable housing in the neighborhoods adjacent to the light rail line. And Knight’s own direct support of LISC helped invest $24 million (and leveraged almost three times that in grants, loans and equity) last year in Twin Cities-based community organizations and individuals to help neighborhoods become or remain high‑quality places to live. Some of its activities include opening a Financial Opportunity Center, which offers employment training, debt management and financial coaching all in one location and creating Frogtown Farm, which provides fresh food, urban agriculture education and green space. “We target specific communities where we know we can make a difference,” says Erik Takeshita, the deputy director of the corporation. “We ask residents what they need and we help make those things possible.” 

Ensuring there is sufficient affordable housing is just one area where the Funders Collaborative focuses its efforts. Another planning team focuses on contractor and workforce inclusion, helping bring new jobs to the region as it strives to meet state workforce goals mandating minority and female workforce hours.  While another team’s work provides access to a small business forgivable loan program, technical assistance, and marketing programs managed by the local chambers of commerce. And because the arts can stimulate economic vibrancy and help create a sense of place, the Funders Collaborative supported Irrigate, a project engaging the city’s cultural community to draw shoppers back to businesses along the rail line.


"How the arts create a sense of place in St. Paul" by Elizabeth R. Miller on Knight Blog

As its name suggests, the Funders Collaborative is in fact collaborative by design. Made up of both local and national funders, it engages a diverse group of stakeholders in all of its work. This approach builds on a community strength. Researchers say the Twin Cities are the most civically engaged metropolitan areas in the United States. They have above average rates of volunteering, voting and association membership. They are more likely to exchange favors with neighbors, stay on top of the local  news  and discuss current events. A high number - 42% say they trust their local government, 32% feel their leaders represented their interests. Residents are also more likely to volunteer and have strong social networks, particularly online — an above average 64% use the Internet to connect with family and friends. In St. Paul, talking things out works because people believe it will make a difference.

Strong networks, active participation, diversity and digital literacy are key elements of another Knight investment run by That group’s goal is to strengthen the participation of St. Paul’s lower and moderate-income communities, especially those along the Central Corridor, through online public neighborhood forums. These virtual places host discussions on public issues like safety, transportation, and education. They promote nothing less than active citizenship, says Steven Clift,’s founder and executive director. The project’s goal is to sign up 10,000 members to participate in the forums by the end of 2014. It’s over halfway there with 6,000. “We want to develop dynamic forums that don’t just bring people into the digital realm,” said Clift, “but ultimately lead to more informed dialogues that enable residents to take action on important community issues.”

Providing an opportunity for residents and business owners to have a strong role in community development not only helps mitigate the disruption during construction, but will also strengthen neighborhood networks and will improve the quality of life for St. Paul’s current and future residents after the rail line is completed, says Talen. “It will be transformational for the city. Our strategy is focused on making sure people have the best information available and use it to pursue what is most important to them. We’re focused on supporting the community to make that happen.”

By Elizabeth R. Miller, communications associate at Knight Foundation

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