October 19, 2011

Building Bridges Initiative Seeks to Grow Local Economy

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Correction appended

Hoping to create a “just and sustainable local economy” in the Tompkins County, the Dorothy Cotton Institute has enlisted local officials, business leaders and others for its Building Bridges initiative, which will begin with a two-day workshop on Nov. 15 and 16.

As part of the initiative, the Nov. 15 and 16 conference will bring together an estimated 75 to 100 local leaders, including elected officials, to “craft a shared vision that everyone understands and is committed to,” said Kirby Edmonds, senior fellow at the DCI. Other organizations involved in the project include local banks, environmental advocacy groups, centers for farming education and, among others, Cornell and Ithaca College.

Unlike the Regional Economic Development Councils recently set up by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Building Bridges plan is limited to Tompkins County. It also, in contrast to Cuomo’s regional councils, puts particular emphasis on “strengthen[ing] relationships across race, class and place,” according to the project’s website.

Like Edmonds, Joanna Green, director of Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming, emphasized that the project would unite typically disparate factions within the region. Her organization works to promote farming education in the area.

“We will be working across divisions of race and class and rural urban divides that our community faces,” Green said. “We are focused on influencing the kind of job creation to address the needs of the most needy in the community, not just those who are well educated.”

The collaboration will focus on improving access to local food and encouraging entrepreneurs to bolster the local work force, Edmonds said. Such advancements will “allow for the full economic participation of economically marginalized communities,” Edmonds said.

According to Edmonds, the goal of the initiative is to create “full economic human rights for everyone who lives in the county region.” Edmonds said that rural communities and communities of color are two “economically marginalized” groups the initiative could help.

Although Building Bridges has not officially begun, its members expressed optimism that the project will be successful.

“There are a number of projects already going on that we will be highlighting in the workshop that provide good examples of the kinds of economic development that we’re looking for,” Green said.

Edmonds said it has been two or three years since he began “seriously thinking” about creating a more cohesive movement toward local self-sustainability.

“I was thinking about how important it would be to develop some kind of schematic effort to pull the resources of entire community together in a particular direction,” he said.  “A lot of people are doing a lot of different things, but there’s no central theme around which people can commit.”

Edmonds said the project was partly inspired by the Earth House Center in Oakland, Calif. The Earth House Center got the group excited about the notion of “making Ithaca a breakthrough community,” Edmonds said.

Edmonds said he believes Building Bridges will create jobs, increase civic participation and promote startup businesses.

“We need to successfully circulate investments within the community, create jobs for people who need work and for individuals who have good business ideas,” Edmonds said.  “Then we should see fairly tangible economic results in five to 10 years.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article’s headline incorrectly referred to the Dorothy Cotton Institute’s initiative as the “Building Barriers Initiative.” In fact, it is the “Building Bridges Initiative.”

Original Author: Caroline Simon