Rail-Volution Conference brings stakeholders together to learn, compare notes, collaborate

Marilyn Porter and Sia Lo work together most days, so it’s not unusual to find them talking and comparing notes. But on this day, the circumstances were unusual. First, it was a Saturday. And secondRail-Volution Conference, Marilyn Porter, Porter and Lo were hundreds of miles from Minneapolis and St. Paul, learning as much as they could about how to do their jobs more effectively back home.

This was day three of Rail~Volution. Taking a breather from all the workshops and tours offered at the national land use and transportation conference held in Boston, Porter and Lo re-energized over coffee and orange juice.  “I’m really liking it,’’ Porter said of the conference. “I like to be surrounded by all the experts and the knowledge.“ Her colleague, Lo, added that the connections being made between the business community, the planning community, transit folks and the general community were very helpful to her work.

Porter and Lo were among nearly three dozen people from the Twin Cities who attended the conference. Twenty-five people representing a cross-section of professions, geography and viewpoints received scholarships to attend the conference from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and The Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities; the remainder came on their own steam, and their own dime, but all were joined together in activities including a lunch and a dinner with advocates and officials from Baltimore.

Several Twin Cities attendees said the best session of the conference was not a session at all but an informal lunch that brought together stakeholders from the Central Corridor and Baltimore’s Red Line. The 90-minute meeting gave community members working on similar issues a chance to trade notes and compare strategies. Twin Cities residents were especially interested in Baltimore’s “community compact,” a community engagement process that was spearheaded by the mayor of Baltimore and resulted in wide agreement on core goals for the light rail line.

Details of Baltimore’s community compact spurred a passionate conversation during the lunch about the Twin Cities’ own community process. At an important moment during the exchange, St. Paul Council Member Russ Stark stood up and frankly acknowledged that the Central Corridor process had included a shorter timeline, compared to Baltimore’s, and that this was not ideal. This has meant that community input came later in the game for the Twin Cities – and issue faced by many other cities trying to build major transportation projects.

Several stakeholders from Minneapolis lauded Council Member Stark for his willingness to admit flaws in the process, and for his efforts to move the public conversation ahead in a way that included as many views as possible. Jackie Cooper and Acooa Lee, who work for Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter and St. Paul Council Member Melvin Carter, respectively, also spoke about Rail-Volution Conference Attendeesthe community process, saying that while not perfect, it had offered many opportunities for engagement by residents and businesses.

After the lunch meeting, stakeholders spilled out into the hallways and continued talking about next steps and ways to involve as many organizations and individuals as possible to ensure that the Central Corridor is reinvigorated through this major public investment.

As the conference wrapped up on Sunday, other Twin Cities stakeholders reflected on their experiences. Linda Winsor, who runs the University Avenue Business Association, felt there was a real lack of information on the role of small businesses.  Jim Roth, who runs the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers, took away from Rail~Volution a deeper perspective on the organizing role played by many community development corporations on the east coast.

“It was a wonderful conference,” said Jonathan Sage-Martinson, who staffs the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, “Exhausting, uplifting and challenging, all in one. I think it will help us re-engage in our work on the Central Corridor with some fresh perspectives.”