Great Falls in Bloomberg Mayors Challenge to get funding for creative problem solving

The City of Great Falls is in the running to win a chunk of cash to solve a pressing issue in the city.

The project is the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, which is open to cities with populations of 30,000 or more and the grand prize is $5 million to fix a problem.

For the first 300 cities that sign up for the challenge, Bloomberg is sending “innovation experts” to conduct one day city hall training workshops for idea development with community leaders.

On Tuesday, a facilitator from Denver was in Great Falls and the workshop group included Mayor Bob Kelly and City Commissioner Tracy Houck; city staff; John Faulkner, airport director; Susan Wolff, head of Great Falls College MSU; Shane Etzwiler, head of the Great Falls Chamber of Commerce; and Jared Brown, a local insurance agent and chair of the board of directors of Make a Wish Montana.

(Full disclosure, The Electric came across the Bloomberg challenge and sent the link to Kelly in June. Kelly signed up for the challenge the same day.)

Great Falls was one of the first cities to sign up and get a workshop, giving the city an advantage since they’ll have more time to prepare their application for the October deadline. Some cities won’t get their workshop until September.

Butte-Silver Bow is also participating.

The workshop is designed to give cities an idea of the kinds of issues their focused on, which this year include homelessness, economic development, crime and climate change, among others.

The idea is that cities will focus on issues that aren’t unique to their area and come up with creative solutions that could apply in other cities as well.

The challenge is part of the American Cities Initiative from Bloomberg Philanthropies. The initiative focuses on three core areas:

  • Promoting bold leadership and effective problem-solving in city halls;
  • Advancing critical policies and legislation in areas ranging from education to climate change to opioid abuse; and
  • Empowering citizens – including artists, volunteers, and entrepreneurs – to solve problems and strengthen social cohesion.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is investing more than $200 million over the next three years in the American Cities Initiative through grants in cities, the delivery of technical expertise, and opportunities for city leaders to share insights and best practices with one another. At least $100 million will support bold and effective leadership in city hall, according to Bloomberg.

The Mayors Challenge workshops are designed to help cities work through the process of how to identify problems and determine if it could realistically be addressed in the next 1-3 years. It included evaluating available data and resources as well as walking the streets downtown to ask residents for their thoughts.

“It was a pretty intense day,” Kelly said. “It gave us all different perspectives and different ways to solve issues. We’ve already gotten something from this. The journey will be rewarding for us whether we win or not.”

The example problem the group used to work through the process was how to attract, recruit, train and retain a talented work force in Great Falls.

That won’t necessarily be the problem the city chooses to pursue for the challenge application, in which the city has to describe an urgent challenge and how they will tackle that challenge in an innovative way.

“There are many issues that we’d like to fix,” Kelly said. “For this challenge, we want to focus on one that lends itself to creative solutions that might be transferable.”

From the October applications, 35 Champion Cities will win up to $100,000 to test their ideas and build local support. The five cities with the best ideas will receive funding to implement their ideas at scale. Four cities will get $1 million for full implementation, and one will win the $5 million grand prize.