In 1986, the idea for what would become the Regional Neighborhood Network (RNN) was launched by the City of Louisville in what was then the Department of Neighborhood Advocacy.
The premise was twofold:
1. Government officials in this region that work in the neighborhood areas must all be experiencing similar issues. It would be helpful if they had a forum to exchange ideas and learn from each other.
2. Many of our neighborhood leaders often feel that they are the only ones going through their challenges. They could benefit from an opportunity to be in an environment where they can share with each other and hear about solutions that their counterparts have developed.
To determine if there was an interest in the region a 400-mile radius around the City of Louisville was drawn. Major cities within that region were identified. Discussions were held to develop the new concept. Any impediment cities might have for not participating were removed by covering hotels and meals.
The cities that were initially invited were: Cincinnati, Memphis, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Lexington, Columbus, OH, and Dayton.
During the two days of meetings, the City of Louisville proposed the creation of a new organization called the Regional Neighborhood Network. It was to have no dues, no officers, no formal structure, and be non-partisan. Representatives at the table came from both Democratic and Republican administrations. The focus was the commonality among us—our interest in seeing the neighborhoods strengthened as opposed to who was in office.
We also felt that by keeping the structure simple we could escape getting bogged down in unnecessary bureaucracy. The government reps fully embraced this idea because all wanted/need colleagues in our field and could call and say, “have you all dealt with…?” It was further decided that the best way to enable the long standing and emerging neighborhood leaders to develop their skills was to put them in a common environment once a year. From that one joint activity, the Regional Neighborhood Network was birthed and the Regional Neighborhood Network Conference (RNNC) was developed. All the original cities pledged they would do everything in their power to keep the conference affordable. Some cities paid the registration for neighborhood leaders. Some paid for meals that weren’t covered. Some debriefed when they returned to their home cities to determine lessons learned.
The City of Louisville agreed to host the first RNNC in 1987. The Conference was marketed throughout the region, while the major thrust was for each member city to receive a block of registration materials to distribute to their communities. In addition to neighborhood leaders, people from universities and foundations were also involved.
Two organizational groups were formed, the Host Committee and the Steering Committee. The Steering Committee was comprised of representatives of the RNN. The Host Committee did all the legwork in pulling the Conference together locally. The Steering Committee came to Louisville on two occasions leading up to the event. The first was to brainstorm with the Host Committee about workshop topics and to develop a pool of potential speakers.
By design an effort was made to use suggested speakers from all the members’ cities so the registrants could immediately see that their solutions were included.
The group acknowledged that after input was given on a variety of themes and such, the final determinations of organizational and logistical aspects of the Conference should be entrusted to the Host Committee. The second RNNC meeting occurred about six weeks prior to the Conference so the Steering Committee could get the final version of what was expected.
It was the Host City’s job to raise money for the Conference. Keynote speakers were asked to share messages that challenged and lifted neighborhoods yet were non-partisan.
The first Conference was a rousing success and momentum was established. Cities rented vans or buses to get neighborhood people to the conferences. There were between 350-400 people at the first one.
The City of Louisville also hosted the 2nd Annual Regional Neighborhood Network Conference in 1988. During the early years it only made sense for Louisville to host it because of the commitment we made to the organization and we had the full buy-in of the Mayor’s office. The second conference drew several new faces as well as a strong contingent of people who were there in the first year. This solidified the relationship between neighborhood leaders from different communities and things took off from there.
The third Conference was hosted by the City of Columbus, Ohio, in 1989. The same formula as before was used. The Host City and Steering Committee interacted to plan the event. For the first time, the sponsorships and receipts were funneled through a local nonprofit. They made a $7,000 profit on the conference and it became a floating advance for the next Host City. The Host City could use it for conference related expenses that may occur prior to registration receipts coming in. That money has floated since.
The 1990 Conference was hosted by the City of Dayton, followed by Indianapolis in 1991. The City of Ft. Wayne, IN hosted in 1992, partnering with Lima, OH. RNNC returned to Louisville in 1993.
The synergy created by RNNC also spurred Lima and Lexington to host their own one-day conference.
There are a few items that have become institutionalized over the years. One was how speakers were handled at the conferences. In the early years, for out-of-town workshop presenters, one free night of lodging was offered at the conference hotel and complimentary registration. This has since fallen away to save costs. The other tradition has been the conference format. The Thursday-Saturday approach with an opening night reception and neighborhood tours have become standard fare. It’s always been one of the highlights of the conference. Three full days have been discussed.
Additionally, we have typically held the bidding for the following year’s conference during the current Conference. That way it could be announced to participants before adjournment where it would be held the next year. During the few years where there was actual competition the Steering Committee would decide for the next two years, so cities that wanted to host would be accommodated. Regardless of how many reps a city had at the Steering Committee meeting each city only had one vote.
For many years the host community produced and sold conference t-shirts to promote the event and to cover costs.
The practice that was adopted for joining the Regional Neighborhood Network was that the sitting mayor generated a letter asking that their city be accepted. At the next meeting of the Steering Committee, it would be discussed and current membership would vote. If the city fell within a driving distance of the initial 400-mile radius they were admitted.
The common-sense approach taken was that if the city was so far away that participants would never go there for a committee meeting or a conference, there was no point in having them come abroad. Anyone of course could come to the conference but only cities could join the Network.
By 2017, the Steering Committee was comprised of representatives from Karen Foley, Bowling Green, KY, Champaign, IL, Columbus, OH, Dayton, OH, Decatur, IL, Evansville, IN, Ft. Wayne, IN, Indianapolis, IN, Lima, OH, Peoria, IL, Richmond, IN, and Urbana, IL.
Since this organization is not incorporated, host cities have sometimes had challenges developing sponsorships for the conference. Seventeen years into it may or may not be an issue any longer. Each Host City is responsible for finding the money to pull off the conference. Any money made after expenses and the traveling $7,000 remains with that Host City.
MORAL OF THE STORY
The RNN model is worth studying by other groups. If you were to ask someone if an organization with no rules, no officers, no dues, could last for almost two decades based solely on a common belief about neighborhoods, they’d probably smile. Keeping it simple has worked. There have been no internal politics within the group and people from the neighborhoods have been able to cultivate solutions to issues they face.
As the city representatives collaborate and community people are empowered the advantages of this model will prevail.