St. Paul community leaders and residents are trying to figure out how to improve one of the city's most impoverished areas. St. Paul won a $500,000 federal planning grant last year as part of the Promise Neighborhood project -- a national program in 21 cities aimed at sending more children to college.
The project is focused on two of the city's poorest neighborhoods, Frogtown and Summit-University. Residents from the two neighborhoods got their first chance Thursday night to shape how the money could be spent.
First, the community took a close look at itself. Wilder researcher Muneer Karcher-Ramos presented results from a survey of the 250 blocks included in the project.
"We went through this neighborhood door to door, we sent fliers out, we called people, and the final result was -- 45 percent of the households with children earn less than $18,000 per year," said Karcher-Ramos.
The neighborhoods, located near the State Capitol, are about one-third African American and one-third Asian. About one in every six children is being raised by someone who isn't their biological parent, most often a grandparent. More than three-quarters of students qualify for free or reduced school lunch. According to the survey, fewer than 10 percent of children in Frogtown and Summit-University get an hour of exercise or five servings of fruits or vegetables a day.
After a year of talking and planning, groups of community members came up with ideas such as all-year youth mentoring programs, health clinics in schools, neighborhood cleanup squads and apprentice programs at local businesses.
"We must really make sure that there are more affordable housing options for families. That was really key," said Eric Haugee, who led one of the groups that met for months.
The groups' ideas were combined into an executive summary that will be the basis of a funding proposal to the federal government.
"We also need to find ways to make it easier for Promise Neighborhood parents to get and keep good-paying jobs," said Sia Her, another group leader.
Thursday's community meeting split into small groups of about six, so facilitators could gather reactions to the proposals.
Yasar Ali told his table he was startled by the survey finding that there are 1,000 vacant houses in the Promise Neighborhood.
"Maybe we need to start petitioning the commissioner and the rest to make it easier to purchase those homes, or at least rehab them," said Ali.
At the same table, Betty Sims said she was scared to go for a walk in her neighborhood.
"I'm a senior citizen. You've got a better chance of getting away from something than I would," said Sims. "That's just the way I look at it, and that's pretty sad."
At another table, Zong Vang said she was frustrated that there were few Hmong at the meeting.
"Why aren't there signs out there? You want community buy-in, but what are we doing to earn their trust?" asked Vang. "It's going to take a lot of time to earn their trust because again, this is another plan initiative for them, and people have made promises in the past and it's been broken."
Promise Neighborhood Advisory Board chair Billy Collins told the room their comments would be considered when the board reviews the draft recommendations at a meeting Monday.
Those recommendations must be sent to the federal government within the next few months, so St. Paul can compete for funding for the implementation phase of the Promise Neighborhood project.
Collins said the government has been pleased with the work in St. Paul so far.
"I'd be very surprised if we don't get top consideration for something," said Collins. "The reality of it is, there's been $30 million that's been allocated so far, and that's not a done deal, it just hasn't been approved by Congress."
Collins said if the federal funding doesn't come through, organizers will ask local contributors to fund the rest of the project.