For the first time in almost two years exactly, the National League of Cities (NLC) returned to Washington D.C. for its Congressional City Conference (CCC). And what a welcome return it was.
And what a welcome return it was.
NLC President and Union City, GA Mayor Vince Williams kicked off the Opening Remarks by grooving onto the stage with a wide smile plastered on his face. He noted in his Opening Remarks that the previous CCC - March 8th - 10th, 2020 - was the last event that many people attended before the world shut down. NLC CEO Clarence Anthony came on after and set a theme for the conference, asserting “local leaders are the one who brought our nation back” to nods and applause throughout the ballroom.
There was certainly a buzz in the air throughout the Marriot Marquis as old friends and colleagues were finally able to reunite in-person. “How great is it to finally see each other outside of a digital box!”, I overheard one attendee exclaim as they recognized a familiar face.
So why was everyone so excited to reunite?
Over the course of the last two days, it became clear that this was a celebration of all things local.
To further understand the impact that a conference like this can have, it’s important to understand some context on two acronyms ...
The NLC is a national network with a hyperlocal focus, comprised of city, town and village leaders that are striving to improve the quality of life for their current and future constituents. They boast nearly 2,500 members across the country and have the ultimate mission of strengthening local leadership, influencing federal policy, and driving innovative solutions.
The CCC is this mission in action.
In its own words, the CCC is meant to “provide local leaders the tools and connections they need to build brighter futures for America's cities, towns and villages.” And what a tool it is.
Political leaders and local change-makers from all over the country gathered to learn, network, and swap stories from home. It was a diverse crowd in every sense of the word - perhaps especially in terms of population served. The CCC boasted council members from towns with a couple thousand people all the way up to the Mayor Eric Adams, who oversees New York City’s population of nearly 9 million.
There were a wide variety of panels and sessions to choose from, so I’m sure every NLC CCC attendee got something different out of the event. Below I’ll dive a little deeper into my takeaways coming from an equitable ecosystem building perspective.
“Equity is the EDA’s top priority”, explained Michelle Chang, the Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) Deputy Assistant Secretary of Policy.
To build on this foundational priority, the myriad programs that the EDA has been able to launch through ARPA funding - specifically the Build Back Better (BBB) Regional Challenge and Good Jobs Challenge (among others) - were established to help strengthen regional ecosystems and make them more resilient to future crises.
Importantly, Chang said the EDA is not going in with a “Washington Knows Best” approach, but rather allowing local ecosystem organizations to partner and submit their own proposals to fund the programs that have the highest local impact potential. To that end, they’ve received over 500 applications for each BBB and the Good Jobs Challenge and are currently in the process of disbursing funding to the finalists.
Antwaun Griffin - the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Chief of Staff - emphasized the importance of tapping into local ecosystem solutions when dolling out millions of dollars of funding. He cited illuminating statistics that showed the gap that exists in communities. For example, during 2020 it was reported that 22% of small businesses closed for at least some period of time. That number jumps to 41% and 30% for Black and Hispanic-owned business, respectively. Another SBA survey showed that “lack of relevant information” was the main problem for 51% of small business respondents.
The SBA’s flagship program to address these structural inequalities is the Community Navigator Pilot Program (CNPP). Through the CNPP, the SBA has funded 51 programs championing small businesses in underserved communities through a “Hub and Spoke” model. Each of these 51 grantees are considered “Hubs” in their communities, which are then connected with up to 6 “Spokes” that provide more targeted entrepreneurial support services, such as microlending or demographic-specific assistance.
The NLC also has direct entrepreneurship support services. Jenn Steinfeld - the NLC’s Director of Entrepreneurship & Economic Development - provided a helpful overview of how the NLC works with their members to promote more equitable economic development on a local level. The key to working with over 200 member cities? There’s not a “one size fits all” approach that can be plugged in to each city without taking into account the context and systemic issues best known to local actors.
The City Inclusive Entrepreneurship (CIE) Network is the program that the NLC uses in order to meet each ecosystem where they are and provide a variety of solutions that best fits their needs. The graphic above outlines all of the various avenues that NLC offers its members through the CIE Network.
In addition to equity in economic development/inclusive entrepreneurship, the term “digital equity” was certainly a theme of the conference - first introduced by ex-Chattanooga mayor and current NTIA Special Representative Andy Berke. During his 8 year term as mayor (2013 - 2021), Berke pioneered citywide broadband internet access and led a partnership to provide high speed broadband at no cost to every family with a child on free or reduced lunch, making Chattanooga the first community in the country to take this step.
A session called “Closing the Digital Divide: Leveraging Federal Resources for Broadband, Digital Equity” doubled down on the need for this type of work by illustrating the gaps that were amplified due to COVID-19 over the past couple of years.
One of those examples hit close to home for the EcoMap team - Baltimore. According to a report on digital equity and access, it was reported that over 50% of Baltimore public school children reported not having access to stable WiFi during the pandemic. This led to many students attending class or doing homework in places such as McDonald’s parking lots.
To that end, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott hired the city's first Director of Digital Equity last Spring - and then in November 2021 - announced a plan to invest $35 million of ARPA funding in the city to address this specific issue.
“The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that internet access is critical, basic public infrastructure. From our students to our older adults, Baltimoreans struggled to learn virtually, work from home, and access needed telemedicine on unreliable, slow connections and limited access to broadband,” said Mayor Brandon M. Scott. “We will not wait — today’s $35 million investment with American Rescue Plan dollars is about taking an active role and kickstarting our efforts to not just bridge the divide, but close it once and for all, with a strong focus on our residents and neighborhoods lacking access. This is just the beginning.”
ARPA has billions of dollars earmarked towards helping communities close the digital divide and bring high-speed internet through access to affordable broadband internet. Thanks to links shared by Christopher Mitchell - Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative within the Institute for Self-Reliance - you can learn more about those resources below.
High profile speakers such as Nancy Pelosi, Pete Buttigieg, and even Joe Biden took the stage to stress the importance of federal and local cooperation when it comes to carrying out the economic recovery programs enacted by this Administration, particularly the $65.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding which was approved just over a year ago.
A recurring theme for these national leaders? Money may flow down federally, but real impact happens locally.
“When I was a mayor, I believed that the most important stuff got done on a local level. Now that I’m in the cabinet ... I know that to be the case”, Secretary Buttigieg quipped to knowing laughter.
Nearly every speaker at the NLC CCC stressed what a momentous opportunity we have to shape this country in this economic recovery. Not since days of the Eisenhower Administration has there been so much federal investment being made in local infrastructure.
And according to the leaders we heard from, the impact that this investment can make is in local hands. It will be up to local ecosystems to come together, assess their greatest needs, and write a prescription to solve their specific problem.
That’s why EcoMap was at the NLC CCC, and where we believe we can help.
Our whole mission is to help local leaders better understand and serve their ecosystem.
We have built a platform that can rapidly feed in data, like the key organizations and the resources they offer, spin that up into a highly accessible platform for their citizens, and then keep that data up-to-date over time. Cities and their assets evolve over time. We can evolve with them.
This is a critical opportunity for local leaders to understand the assets they do have, and importantly, discover what’s still missing. It’s the first step to creating a more connected, equitable, and navigable ecosystem.
For any cities that had a representative in attendance for the NLC CCC, EcoMap is happy to offer a 20% discount for getting an EcoMap platform up and running for your city. To see an example of how an EcoMap can make your cities' ecosystem more accessible, you can check out the platform we recently launched in Baltimore with the goal of closing the city's stark digital divide: Baltimore Tech Connect
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can make your ecosystem more equitable and accessible, you can set up a time to talk through this link.
And that’s a wrap on NLC CCC 2022!
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