The residents of Ramsey County, Minnesota – which includes the city of St. Paul – are the most diverse of any county in the state, representing a multitude of cultures and heritages. Between 2019 and 2021, Fourth Economy worked with the Ramsey County Department of Community and Economic Development on its Economic Competitiveness and Inclusion (ECI) Plan. The ECI plan is guided by a comprehensive economic development strategy, centered on equitable growth and strengthening economic competitiveness. This strategy prioritizes inclusion in future investments and other actions related to housing, job creation, workforce development, and place-based investments while responding to the COVID-19 crisis. Fourth Economy led the planning effort and coordination with other partnering firms including:
Center for Economic Inclusion - Community Engagement, Strategic Advisor, Equity Framework, Implementation.
Neoo Partners Inc. - Community Engagement, Strategic Advisor, Equity Framework, Implementation.
MZ Strategies - Housing Analysis, Economic Analysis, Implementation.
Urban3 - Property Value Analysis, Comparative Analysis.
Yesterday, Ramsey County’s ECI plan won an Excellence in Economic Development Silver Award from the International Economic Development Council.
To celebrate, we caught up with five plan stakeholders to hear about the plan’s impact since its launch. Channon Lemon is the Vice President of Economic Development for the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, and represented the local business community and their needs, as did Amanda Taylor, the Vice President of Research & Intelligence for Greater MSP. Tawanna Black, Founder, and CEO of the Center for Economic Inclusion advocated equitable and dynamic strategies for bringing new opportunities to all residents of Ramsey County, especially those historically left out of economic development plans. As Executive Director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, Anne Mavity contributed expertise on housing availability and affordability. Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo serves on the Ramsey County Board, representing residents of District 3.
Fourth Economy: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you are involved with Ramsey County’s Economic Competitiveness and Inclusion Plan?
Channon Lemon: I have been a part of the planning process and continue to join monthly meetings to discuss regional economic development. To me, the Ramsey County plan has really been a beacon because it is one of the first roadmaps that show how you can take economic vibrancy and inclusion and make them both priorities – not an either-or. In the midst of everything we’re going through with the pandemic and economic disparities, having a road map is really important.
Anne Mavity: I’ve worked to provide direct technical assistance to rural communities and native nations, driving policy and investments. I’ve also advocated at the state level with research – helping to inform, drive, and shape policy solutions. For the plan, we wanted to make sure that community leaders and policymakers have a good framework and solid information on which to base their investments. That way, they could accomplish their mission and the county’s mission as well.
Tawanna Black: Ramsey County asked us to engage around housing strategy and community engagement, and to serve as an advisor for the implementation of the housing strategy – to ensure Ramsey County is able to bring the plan to life. Our organization is the first of its kind in the country. Our work is to ensure that all voices are heard throughout the planning process and implementation and that we hold the organizations we work with accountable through the implementation of the plan. We’ve continued this work throughout the state and country, leading economic competitiveness and inclusion work. We want to ensure that the work is done with data and rigor, but also keeps Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people at the center.
Trista MatasCastillo: I have been an advocate for economic development and resilience through affordable housing throughout my professional career, and furthering that was one of my key objectives when I ran for county commissioner. Ramsey County has always been the key missing piece in our area’s affordable housing picture, and as chair of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, I knew that we needed to put our weight behind this problem. When we go through our budgeting process, every single department has issues that touch on our lack of affordable housing and the difficulties that causes. My colleagues and I agreed that we would never be able to achieve our other goals for our programs and workforce without meeting this issue head-on.
Amanda Taylor: I was a part of the steering committee from the beginning, helping to select the consultants we would work with. Previously, I spent time as a consultant, so I was able to bring that lens to our work throughout the RFP development, consultant selection process, and strategy phase. As the Regional Economic Development Partnership, we care a lot about the plan because it focuses on actions, resources, and opportunities to make Ramsey County more competitive. The ECI plan is a model as we talk to other counties in the region; we are very supportive and complementary of this plan and look forward to what comes next.
Fourth Economy: What does it mean to create a resilient and equitable community?
Anne Mavity: At its simplest, it means an equitable plan and approach that ensures the folks most impacted by racial and economic disparities participate in naming the community’s needs and deciding on the solutions. This means they are involved throughout the process, influencing how the plan gets done, whose expertise is being deployed, and who has a seat at the table. This is a shift from how policies have been made up until now; to date, our systems have not been set up to accomplish this. Therefore, looking at the results of the ECI plan we should see reduced disparities – outcomes that are not different across racial and economic communities.
Channon Lemon: There are a few keys to economic success, business growth, and vibrancy. A healthy economy is a place where we are able to excel due to access and opportunity. First, we often think about wages based on supply and demand and profitability. We need to begin to think about compensating people for their talents that allow individuals access to entering into high-paying, high-demand jobs that have life-sustaining pathways. Second, we need to think about how to invest so all are welcomed and all participate. Sometimes community investment means displacement. When we talk about the community’s voice, what we are talking about is people selecting after choices have been made and we’re not necessarily engaging people throughout the decision-making process. That is something Ramsey County did differently with this plan – the county really thought through what community engagement and outreach needed to happen to ensure a broad representation of community voices were heard. When you look at economic development professionals, -they are not diverse, representation is lacking. Finally, we know that people of color in communities of poverty suffer greatly from economic environmental risk. We need to pursue energy transformation technology, and look at infrastructure holistically.
Tawanna Black: In order to build equitable economies of the future, everything Center for Economic Inclusion designs considers race, place, and income. We have to understand the context of geography, what challenges are grounded in race, what challenges are grounded in place, where are people living and working within that geography, and where there is income. In Ramsey County, there has been a lack of transparency and access to opportunity for many residents. We have found that individuals have skills, and what they need are better jobs. Opportunity is given out in unequal ways. We need to more equitably connect talent to opportunity.
Fourth Economy: Thinking about the process of creating the county’s Economic Competitiveness & Inclusion Plan during 2020, what stood out to you as the most challenging part of the work?
Tawanna Black: Throughout the planning process, we faced two pandemics. COVID-19 sent people into their homes, and businesses and governments were busy addressing one crisis after another. Our original community engagement strategy was developed before the pandemic and included an in-person street team. With the pandemic, we had to pivot to a remote strategy. We didn’t say, “We can’t do engagement because people are at home.” We went virtual and created surveys, online meetings, and employer surveys.
Amanda Taylor: Yes, it was definitely a challenge to pivot from in-person to virtual and hybrid engagement. I most appreciated the equitable approach to the work, which is a challenge that Ramsey County very intentionally addressed by choosing diverse partners, stakeholders, and consultants. I also appreciated how topics were examined holistically; for example, discussing housing as a matter of infrastructure emphasized the importance of holistically examining the challenge of affordable housing – like how housing and transit connectivity interrelate.
Fourth Economy: Can you share strategies implemented since the plan was finished? How are they progressing?
Amanda Taylor: Housing was an intentional part of the plan in thinking of it as infrastructure. Especially, in this moment and time where we are facing housing shortages and affordability. I think we really addressed housing in a unique way, thinking about how housing and transit connectivity interrelate. This approach is continuing to shape regional conversations.
Trista MatasCastillo: I agree. Just this month, we voted to raise our first-ever Housing Redevelopment Authority (HRA) levy in Ramsey County that will generate $11 million annually. We’ve had municipalities raising HRA levies for decades, but with 18 separate municipalities within the county – and many of the wealthiest and most exclusive declining to raise their own – we’ve ended up with a fragmented picture that hasn’t helped as many people as it could. $11M isn’t all that much money when you compare it to the scope of the problem in the Twin Cities, but we’re going to be able to use that money to leverage existing programs and greatly extend their impact.
Fourth Economy: How was the need for racial equity amplified after George Floyd’s murder in June 2020 and the uprisings that followed?
Anne Mavity: The opportunity that 2020 provided is normalizing the conversation. The events made people feel the requirement to act. Work leaped forward in a way that was very disruptive – people still needed to do a lot of learning and understanding about racial equity. But people and organizations and enterprises are now using the language of racial equity and identifying it as a valuable, important component that needs to be embedded in their work. We’re learning this, instead of having separate, side initiatives, equity must be a core component of all initiatives.
Trista MatasCastillo: In terms of racial equity, we know here in Ramsey County that everything we do has to be done through an equity lens, because all of the harms we see disproportionately affect our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color populations, and because we know that many of our systems have intentionally put heavier burdens on those populations in the past. Everything that goes through the Board of Commissioners has to talk about the anticipated racial equity impacts, and I think that has really helped us narrow in on this problem. With everything that has happened in the last few years, I don’t think any jurisdiction can ignore this issue anymore.
Amanda Taylor: It also meant amplification. Ramsey is the most diverse county in our region. Ramsey County has the largest non-white population. So racial equity was intentionally built into our plan. When George Floyd’s murder happened it made all of us more focused. We didn’t have to pivot our approach to the plan – it reminded all of us how important this work is within economic development. Creating opportunity is so important. As we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we desperately need everyone in our region prepared for meaningful work.
Fourth Economy: How has the economic context (like the American Rescue Plan) changed since the launch of the plan?
Channon Lemon: People are hungry and these are very serious times. With all of this federal money, there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the way we do business. How do we disrupt and address systems that haven’t been working? For example, when we talk about housing and affordability, there may be new approaches that other communities have embraced but we haven’t tried yet, like modular homes. That’s the part that Ramsey is figuring out now.
Anne Mavity: I’ll echo that. These resources are an incredible, once-in-a-generation opportunity. Plans like Ramsey County’s ECI plan are in place to help focus decision-makers on priorities and help them be more intentional and methodical about deploying resources. Having the plan in place helped us be more proactive in pursuing American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding, as opposed to reactive. A challenge with the infusion of money is that the organizational capacity within the private sector and nonprofit sector is not in line with the scale of resources coming at us right now. How do we expand capacity? In particular, how do we expand the capacity in a way that can increase racial equity? We need more POC and BIPOC-led organizations actually doing development – making sure they’re in early to benefit from the infusion of resources.
Trista MatasCastillo: The ARP has been a huge resource for Ramsey County, and without it we could not do the work we are planning. This year, we’re using a big chunk of ARP funds to offset the HRA levy and to phase that in over the next two years. We’re also putting $27M of the ARP funds into jumpstarting our Economic Competitiveness and Inclusion Plan work while we wait for the levy to kick in, which means we get to start showing results right away. We couldn’t have done that without the American Rescue Plan, and I think the President and Congress deserve thanks for that.
Fourth Economy: What is your advice for other communities across the U.S. who are looking to implement something similar?
Channon Lemon: We’re still in the implementation phase, so having a plan and a vision is a valuable tool as we continue to increase buy-in with stakeholders. We didn’t stop engaging with partners once the plan was complete.
Anne Mavity: Own wherever you are in your own personal and organizational learning. As leaders, we need to model that this is a path full of things that will trip you up and that will be challenging. Freely acknowledge when you trip up, both publicly and privately. Make sure that it’s not just words. Hold yourself accountable and make sure that you’re accountable to everyone in the community by measuring your impact. Be transparent.
Amanda Taylor: The entire area you’re planning for has to own and advocate for the vision of the plan. We stressed this over and over, in person, in writing, and at all meetings. It’s been amazing to set the vision and see that become a reality. Community members are now meeting on their own in subgroups to use the plan as a guiding force for their own work. There’s a new level of ownership among community leaders and invested residents. We can never afford to decide for other people what their interests are or what will motivate them to focus on economic growth.
Trista MatasCastillo: My advice for other communities is to be bold and really give your staff and leaders the room to address the whole scope of the problem, even if that framing is controversial in your community. If we’re successful with this plan, we won’t just be providing affordable housing for our residents and building stronger neighborhoods, we’ll be closing the wealth gap and addressing a whole host of disparities that tens of thousands of our residents struggle with every day. You can only do that if you’re willing to address those disparities directly, and you can only do that if you can name them. I’m proud of the work we’ve done, but what this plan has emphasized for me is how much further we need to go before we truly have a county of excellence.
If we’re successful with this plan, we won’t just be providing affordable housing for our residents and building stronger neighborhoods, we’ll be closing the wealth gap and addressing a whole host of disparities that tens of thousands of our residents struggle with every day. - Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo
Fourth Economy: What are you most proud of as a result of this plan?
Channon Lemon: I’m proud of Ramsey County for taking the step to conduct the ECI plan, and of the stakeholders who engaged. There was outreach to real people on the front line, who participated and provided feedback. Now the county is taking this plan, based on their input, and moving it forward.
Anne Mavity: I appreciate that the plan is usable for residents, not just the economic development community. Part of that is because local artists contributed to the plan's design, making it a visually compelling report.
Amanda Taylor: Everything from my perspective felt really good. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to other counties in the region who are looking to this plan as a model. That is something we’re all proud of. The timing for all of the challenges, COVID-19, federal funding ... it was difficult, but because we were already working to develop all the strategies and priorities, we were prepared to take advantage of the ARP and now we have funding to do the work.
To learn more about Ramsey County’s ECI plan, please visit the Ramsey County plan website. Read about Fourth Economy’s role in supporting this plan and our work supporting equitable development. If you have questions or are interested in discussing equitable development in your community, please get in touch.
IEDC's Excellence in Economic Development Awards recognize the world's best economic development programs and partnerships, marketing materials, and the year's most influential leaders. 25 award categories honor organizations and individuals for their efforts in creating positive change in urban, suburban, and rural communities. Awards are judged by a diverse panel of economic and community developers, following a nomination process held earlier this year. IEDC received over 500 submissions from 4 countries.
“The winners of IEDC’s Excellence in Economic Development awards represent the best of economic development and exemplify the leadership that our profession strives for every day,” said 2021 IEDC Board Chair and Invest Buffalo Niagara, President, and CEO Tom Kucharski. “We’re honored to recognize the more than 100 communities whose marketing submissions, projects, and partnerships have improved regional quality of life.”
Throughout this blog, we featured art from Leeya Jackson. Leeya Jackson is an art director, designer, and illustrator born and raised in Detroit, MI. She creates works that explore and celebrate her Black Femme and Queer identities. See more of her work here.
In addition to Leeya Jackson, two other local artists contributed to the plan’s design. Learn more about their work: