Building Community Through Civic Engagement By Ryan Undercoffer

The Niagara Falls Department of Community Development would like to thank the people of Niagara Falls for the active role they have taken in PB360, the participatory budgeting process that saw nearly 250 city residents express their ideas and cast their votes for park improvements across the city.

In our department, we treat “Community Development” as both a name and a call to action. We do everything we can to enhance the social capital of our city, working to strengthen the networks and bonds that make our city something more than a place on a map – a community.

Strong community ties make cities safer, economies stronger and local government more effective. For those reasons, we do our very best to approach our mission from multiple angles. When we help promote home ownership through our auctions and closing cost grants, we hope to create a greater sense of responsibility for the well-being of our city’s neighborhoods. Our housing rehabilitation programs promote neighborhood pride. Our anti-zombie program has brought neighborhoods together to support remedies for problem properties. We work to improve our city’s public spaces in an effort to give people a place not only to spend time with their families, but to form connections with others and to build the relationships that mean the difference between a city block and a neighborhood.

The participatory budgeting process has proven to be an effective way to bring people together around issues that impact their quality of life. Niagara Falls Community Development begins with the premise that individuals know best what they need in their neighborhoods, and we strive to bring those visions into reality. Participatory budgeting provides an effective mechanism for this mission. In addition to translating neighborhood ideas into tangible results, PB360 was able to mobilize communities across the city to act in their interests, doing more to strengthen neighborhood ties than a park improvement could on its own.

While we would ideally be able to perform all the suggested park improvements, we are unfortunately limited in the amount of funding we can commit to these projects each year. Our staff was inspired by the way that the neighborhood surrounding Jerauld Avenue Park, for example, came together to support improvements to their park, though in the end Jerauld Avenue did not make the final cut. NF CD and the Department of Public Works continue to invest in this park through other projects outside of PB360, though we would like to commend the Jerauld Avenue neighborhood, and in particular their block club President, Mary Lawton, for being a model of civic engagement throughout this process.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of PB360 is the funding of Louis S. ‘Big Lou’ Serianni Park, formerly known as Liberty Park. The playground equipment was badly dilapidated, covered in graffiti, and in a few areas unusable. This park is somewhat tucked away from the main thoroughfares of the city, on the corner of 19th Street and Forest Avenue, and required a sizable financial investment. Yet when residents across Niagara Falls understood that the park was in need of attention, they supported funding the project, despite the fact that it wouldn’t directly benefit their own neighborhoods.

NF CD staff will continue to incorporate participatory budgeting into our decision-making. As we begin the 2018 program year budget process, we will again look to our community to tell us how we can better serve their needs, as we continue to refine and improve the methods we use to assess and respond to your concerns. We extend our sincere thanks to the Mayor and City Council for their support of this initiative, and to the people of Niagara Falls for your participation and care for the community we all call home.

Ryan Undercoffer is the finance manager for Niagara Falls Community Development.