Summit offers important insight on cross-sector collaboration

Panelists at this year's Gateway Cities Innovation Summit made it clear that the key to success in economic development and neighborhood revitalization is successful cross-sector collaboration. Through these "unlikely partnerships", new and exciting ideas are generated and reciprocity is cultivated. The event was organized in collaboration with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's Working Cities Challenge, cited in program materials as "a groundbreaking effort to support leaders who are reaching across sectors to ensure that smaller cities in Massachusetts are places of opportunity and prosperity for all their residents."
John DeStafano, former Mayor of New Haven, documented his efforts to revitalize the city's downtown, once described in a 1994 GQ article as "a war zone of poverty, crime and drugs, as frightening as any city in America." Due to remarkable collaborations between the public and private sectors, New Haven is now among the fastest growing cities in New England in terms of both population and economic significance. In his informative presentation, buoyed by his frank sense of humor, DeStafano outlined four major factors in collaborative success: cohesion (including willingness to work within the agendas of others), authenticity ("don't try to be something you're not"), mutual interest, and legitimacy (fairness/reciprocity). He routinely mentioned social capital as a key component to success, encouraging the audience to "invest collaborations." He also made it clear that some partnerships can be counter-productive, even toxic, and advised that organizations be quick to end collaborations that don't produce results. This pragmatism, however, was countered by an optimistic call to "water 1000 flowers," as, in his experience, it is extremely difficult to predict which partnerships will be fruitful.
Marilyn Higgins, Vice President of Community Engagement and Economic Development at Syracuse University, echoed some of DeStefano's sentiments, equating authenticity with excitement about a particular project. The best way to measure excitement (and to predict success), she said, is how long collaborators stick around "after the meeting is over." Working at a grassroots level, and free from the restrictions elected officials often face, Higgins has taken a creative, unorthodox approach to engagement, using social capital and familiarity with the community to craft community specific programming and events. Instead of a ground-breaking ceremony, the concept of which she writes off as self-congratulatory and unmemorable, Higgins organized a "salt-throwing" to celebrate a new housing project. "People still talk about being there," she said. In line with the strategies of SCI's partners in Lynn, Revere, and Chelsea, she also referenced a successful collaboration between health centers and food stores in Syracuse in which young nutrition students served as the intermediary link.
The keynote speaker of the morning panel was Rip Rapson, the soft-spoken President and CEO of the Kresge Foundation. Though he touched on several points, Rapson's recounting of his work in Detroit was the highlight of his speech (though he warned that people's eyes tend to glaze over at the mention of Detroit due to the severity of its economic depression). Famously car-oriented, Detroit lacked any rail system of public transit. Through an intensive community engagement process and through contributions of philanthropists and private sector donors, Rapson was able to help greenlight the nation's first privately funded public rail project. The key, he said, was to focus on re-imagining the city. The first step was acknowledging (and conveying) that the prosperous Detroit of the early-mid 20th Century, powered by the auto industry, was a thing of the past. Rapson noted that, as in the case of Detroit, an affinity for the way things are currently done, or successes of the past, is often a hurdle in economic development. Thus, it takes true vision to reimagine a community and successful partnerships to bring that vision to life.