As San Jose’s Strong Neighborhoods Ends, Plan Emerges for Citywide Effort

Kip Harkness thanks staff members and neighborhood leaders at a goodbye event.

City officials and residents unofficially closed the last chapter of the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative at a potluck on Friday, June 17, at Roosevelt Community Center, but many pledged to continue the work of the 10-year-old, award-winning neighborhood improvement program that pumped $104 million into neglected areas and trained a new generation of community leaders.

Although the next chapter of community engagement is still being written, Kip Harkness, SNI’s first manager and last director, will take the helm as assistant to the city manager in August to create a citywide program with a smaller budget, fewer staff members and a reliance on neighborhoods to find resources the city can no longer afford to provide. The new effort will not be a stand-alone department and will involve a cross-section of city employees and volunteers from across San Jose.

The question to answer, Harkness said in an interview, is “How can the city as a whole engage neighborhoods in a meaningful way?”

Kathy Sutherland

At the same time, the Coalition of Neighborhood Councils, a residents’ group formed to support SNI’s revamped business plan forced by funding cuts, is exploring new ways to help neighborhoods help themselves and forge new connections at City Hall. The CNAC will meet at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 22, at the McKinley Neighborhood Center.

Launched in 2000 to as an unprecedented way to bring San Jose Redevelopment Agency dollars to low-income and blighted neighborhoods, SNI also

SNI staff members Tom Johnston and Paul Pereria

SNI staff members Tom Johnston and Paul Pereira

was intended to re-invent the way the city did business with its residents. Neighborhood Advisory Committees – later dubbed Neighborhood Action Coalitions – worked with City and Agency staff and consultants to determine what their neighborhoods needed. The approach was a monumental departure from government coming into needy neighborhoods and telling residents what they needed.

In its 10-year span, the program funded community centers, streetlights, sidewalks, revamped sewer systems, parks, repaved streets in 29 project areas and transformed a rundown and crime-plagued shopping center at King and Story Roads into a successful retail venue and safe gathering place in East San Jose. SNI was honored in 2008 as the National League of Cities Municipal Excellence award winner.

A victim of budget cuts and a downsized and cash-poor redevelopment agency, SNI’s staffing shrunk from 35 in 2009 to 4.75 positions starting July 1. The last day for most of the remaining Strong Neighborhoods employees will be Friday, June 24.

Joan Rivas Cosby and Pete KolstadHarkness said that in addition to the 4.75 positions in the City Manager’s Office, the new venture would have as many as five part-time community activity workers and up to six from volunteer programs including Vista and Americorps. The operating budget will be about $60,000.

But Harkness sees every city employee who works with residents as a resource to neighborhoods, including those in Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services; Code Enforcement; Planning; Environmental Services; the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force and Housing.

“We don’t have a lack of resources with that perspective,” he said. “Everybody has a piece of it , but they don’t come together.”

Still, more attention would need to be paid to the 13 neighborhoods identified as Neighborhoods in Crisis in the SN Business Plan because of such factors as crime, foreclosure and unemployment rates and poverty. Strong Neighborhoods made progress in these neighborhoods and in other areas, Harkness said, but they never reached the level of most neighborhoods across San Jose.

“No way is Santee on par with Willow Glen,” he said.

Present and past SNI staff members honored at event.

At Friday nights’ SNI wake, leaders spoke of what the program did for their neighborhoods but also about what it did for themselves and their neighbors. They thanked staff members for their support, hard work and friendship and looked beyond the buildings and parks that SNI generated.

“People came out for the projects,” said longtime Strong Neighborhoods resident Kathy Sutherland, ” but they stayed for building a community.”

In going forward, the SNI pioneers are equipped with knowledge of how local government works, the tools to engage their neighbors and a determination to accomplish what they’ve been told can’t be done. It was clear at the Friday event that they also are concerned about losing staff that provided a valuable connection to City Hall.

“SNI has a face,” said Imelda Rodriguez, an Olinder Neighborhood resident and a CommUniverCity staff member. “SNI is not an acronym or a building on East Santa Clara Street. SNI is and means nothing without the people who make SNI. SNI has a face and it is represented in Paul Pereira, Debbie Bybee, Tom Johnston, and other who are here present, like Omar Torres, Leif Christiansen, Paul Gonzalez, and many others. “

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