Next week, I’ll participate in the 2011 Annual Conference of the National Association of Counties(NACo) with partners from across the Administration.
The timing is bittersweet for me, as I prepare to return to Seattle after more than two years as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But this conference reminds me how far we’ve come since I first spoke to NACo two years ago – and the steps we’ve taken to help cities and regions tackle common challenges together.
Having served as King County Executive in Washington for a dozen years before coming to HUD, I knew all too well that the Federal government wasn’t usually part of that conversation. And when it was, the Federal government was more often a barrier to progress than the kind of partner we needed.
In King County, we created a regional affordable housing program, one of our nation’s first regional climate plans, and established light rail service that connected some of the most distressed areas of Greater Seattle. Virtually on our own, we turned into the kind of thriving metropolitan region we need to win the future.
Unfortunately, without a federal partner to help places facing similar challenges cut through the red tape and leverage private investment, the kinds of turnarounds we’ve seen in Seattle or Boston or Pittsburgh have been all too rare.
But because of President Obama, Secretary Donovan and leaders throughout this Administration, that’s beginning to change. They realize that our metros produce over 80 percent of the nation’s patents and exports, where 90 cents out of every dollar America produces come from, and where more than 8-in-10 residents live. And they know competitors like China and India realize it, too.
That’s why we’ve worked with organizations like NACo to provide the tools and partnerships counties need to build strong regional economies and create jobs:
- Through Regional Innovation Clusters, we are building on the model developed by the auto industry in the Midwest, by biotech firms in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and of course, by the technology corporations in Silicon Valley. Combined with targeted investments like those in advanced vehicle battery manufacturing funded through the Recovery Act, as well as the workforce training necessary to ensure workers in these communities have the skills they need, we’re helping regions not only create jobs today, but become global leaders in the new and innovative industries that will drive economic growth in the 21st century.
- Through the historic Sustainable Communities Partnership HUD created with the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency to align housing and transportation investments, we’re helping forge a new wave of transportation zoning, building code, and land use reform that communities need to support this kind of strong regional growth while also ensuring that all Americans have access to jobs, good schools and public transit options. Instead of the old top-down approach, this Administration wants to be the kind of partner that comes to the table with resources that reward and leverage these reforms.
- Through a customized pilot initiative called “Strong Cities, Strong Communities” and announced this week by Secretary Donovan in Detroit and myself in Cleveland, we’re providing on-the-ground technical assistance and resources to local leaders in six distressed cities and regions. As I saw for myself in Seattle, these places have remarkable assets, institutions, and human capital that America needs to out-build, out-educate, and out-innovate our global competitors in the 21st century. And with a new approach—not a new grant program—we can help local leaders from Memphis to Fresno better put federal dollars they already have to use realize their own visions for regional economic success.
With this work, we’re helping lay the foundation not just for stronger communities – but for the dynamic, diverse economy America needs. And instead of following the old Washington playbook, we’re doing it from the ground up—not telling communities what they need, but by listening, learning and partnering for growth.
That is the kind of change President promised when he came into office two-and-a-half years ago. It’s the kind of change I’ve been proud to be a part of during my time at HUD. And it’s one I’ll be proud to share at NACo when I speak there on Sunday.
Ron Sims is Deputy Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.