• Jennifer Egmont
Categorized As:
GPLEX

From Corruption to Collaboration in Chelsea, MA

The city of Chelsea, MA, has struggled for decades with high unemployment, crime and the legacy of political corruption. Last month, Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange participants traveled to Chelsea to learn how leaders are successfully working together toward long-term solutions to these often intractable issues.
 

The small city of Chelsea, Massachusetts, sits just across the Mystic River from Boston. Despite the close proximity of these cities, the thriving economy and rising property values in Boston have largely bypassed Chelsea. But after decades of stagnation, things are changing in this inner-ring community of 37,000. Participants of the Economy League’s Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange traveled to Chelsea to learn more about how the city’s leaders are working together to spur economic growth and increase opportunities for residents.

 

A Fresh Start for Chelsea

 

The story of Chelsea is similar to that of so many small- and medium-sized cities that were once home to the kind of well-paying manufacturing and industrial jobs that disappeared as the economy shifted in the 1960s and 1970s. As Chelsea declined, those who were able to leave headed for the suburbs, and growing poverty and crumbling infrastructure were exacerbated by far-reaching political corruption.

 

In 1991, the City found itself unable to pay its bills, leading the state to appoint a receiver and eliminate the mayor’s position. Two years later, a federal corruption probe led to the conviction of four former mayors and several members of the police force. Illustrating just how bad things had gotten, Chelsea’s current city manager, Jay Ash, recounted that the mayor at the time pleaded with the state: “We’re not asking you to open the gates of heaven and let us in. We’re asking you open the gates of hell and let us out.”

 

In 1991, the City found itself unable to pay its bills, leading the state to appoint a receiver and eliminate the mayor’s position.Two years later, a federal corruption probe led to the conviction of four former mayors and several members of the police force.

 

In light of such widespread corruption, the state decided to abandon the mayor-council form of government and replace it with a council-manager structure. Rather than electing a mayor, residents would elect council members who appoint a city manager who is accountable to them. The state chose this form of government because it limits the political influence of a single person and allows for the appointment of a professional, trained manager to run city operations.   

 

While this decision paved the way for meaningful, long-term change, lots of work lay before the city to restore its reputation and begin rebuilding its economy and neighborhoods. City government had to re-earn the trust and confidence of residents, the state, and potential outside investors. Fortunately, the city found a great resource in an unlikely place – the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

 

The Working Cities Challenge

 

In 2007, analysts from the Fed examined 26 cities across the US facing challenges similar to those of Chelsea and other small, economically depressed cities in Massachusetts. They discovered that eight of these cities had managed to maintain or recover their economic stability. Several factors seemed to distinguish these cities: the presence of anchor institutions, investment in infrastructure, and an extension of benefits to the community as a whole. But it was collaborative leadership – defined as the ability to work together across sectors over time with a comprehensive vision – that was most crucial.

 

Based on these findingsthe Boston Fed, along with a host of other cross-sector partners, launched the Working Cities Challenge. The Challenge is designed to support promising collaborative efforts by providing winning cities with grant dollars and access to networking and training opportunities. Earlier this year, Chelsea was selected to receive $225,000 over three years because of the track record of collaboration between its school superintendent, housing authority officials, city government, police, and nonprofit organizations.

 

New Approaches to Old Problems  

 

During the Leadership Exchange visit to Chelsea, participants heard from senior leaders from three of the agencies collaborating on the Working Cities Challenge: the City of Chelsea; Roca (which engages the community’s most at-risk young adults to keep them alive, out of jail, and employed); and The Neighborhood Developers (which provides real estate development, community engagement, and individual asset development services). All three leaders noted that, while they had already established a strong foundation for collaborative leadership, the resources and trainings provided by the Fed allowed them to go beyond “good relationships” and start having frank conversations, share data, and create shared ownership of outcomes.

 

City Manager Jay Ash also talked about moving from a reactive to a proactive approach to intractable challenges like drug abuse and prostitution. Instead of looking at these as strictly law enforcement issues, community leaders are approaching them as issues of public health and exploitation. Having nonprofits, the police, courts, and the City all buying in to this approach and working together is crucial. 

 

Leaders from Roca and The Neighborhood Developers highlighted the gains they’ve made as a result of collecting and sharing robust data on their clients and the services they provide. They described a “virtuous cycle” of bundling social services and sharing data, which allowed partners to see exactly what was working and how much more effective they were when they worked together to provide clients with a suite of services. Good data allowed agencies to pinpoint the services that were most effective and, equally important, understand why they were effective. This success has encouraged them to step further out of their silos and find more ways to work together.

 

And the results have been impressive. In fact, TD Bank just awarded The Neighborhood Developers a $100,000 grant to support a new housing project and services for at-risk young parents and their children. The Neighborhood Developers will build the housing and Roca will provide home visiting, parenting education, and child health and development screenings. They will also provide parents with classes in life skills and pre-vocational training.

These investments point to the progress the city is making. Since the state takeover and reformation of city government more than two decades ago, nearly $1 billion of new development has come to Chelsea. 

These investments point to the progress the city is making. Since the state takeover and reformation of city government more than two decades ago, nearly $1 billion of new development has come to Chelsea -- including hotels, market-rate housing, and shopping centers. The city has also won two “All American City” awards, and, just last year, it received two bond rating increases. 

 

While the Working Cities Challenge is limited to Massachusetts for now, the collaborative and data-driven approach to community transformation holds the promise of providing valuable lessons to other places around the country. Given the many similarities between Chelsea and Greater Philadelphia’s struggling core communities, leaders in the Philadelphia area should pay close attention as Chelsea and other Working Cities Challenge communities discover the most effective strategies for working together for lasting change.