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Woodbury named finalist in All America City Award

Woodbury city leaders returned from Denver last Monday with their heads high after being named finalists for the All America City award, one of the oldest national community and local government awards.

The National Civic League, a nonprofit that advocates for open and effective local government has hosted the event since 1949. Winning cities mostly gain boasting rights, but the event, which was hosted the weekend of June 17, also gives cities an opportunity to network and exchange culture.

Woodbury was nominated alongside 19 other cities across the country, including Minneapolis suburb Columbia Heights, which was one of 10 cities lauded the award.

Though city leaders came back from Denver with only the honorable mention, they said the workshops and meetings with other cities offered a chance to reflect on positives and learn from other cities.

"I wasn't sure what to expect," said Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens shortly after returning to Minnesota on last Monday. "I was happy that it was more than a competition."

Stephens added she was thrilled to hear Columbia Heights received the award, given the smaller suburb's population of about 20,000 and its stark growth in immigrant and minority residents. Both cities representing Minnesota entered the competition for the first time and were each named finalists.

Columbia Heights is the first Minnesota city to win the award since Montevideo and Wilmar took home the award in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

Finalists during this year's contest ranged from San Antonio, Texas --the seventh largest U.S. city—to places like Hartsville, S.C., a town with a sub-8,000-person population.

Communities entering the contest are required to submit an application to be evaluated by a panel of judges. This year, nationally recognized government, business and philanthropic leaders made up the panel of judges.

In its application to the contest, Woodbury highlighted its initiative to foster a welcoming and inclusive community, by working with other cities, as well as members of the community, to tackle racial and other equity issues.

Racial diversity in Woodbury doubled from 2000 to 2010, according to city information. But the latest census data show the city lags slightly behind the greater metro's diversity, especially within its Hispanic and black populations.

In a past city survey, some Woodbury residents submitted feedback indicating they did not feel connected to their community, which led to the initiative to make the city more inclusive as it becomes more diverse.

"We're a growing city and a changing city," Woodbury City Administrator Clinton Gridley said.

The city also highlighted the Madison Claire Foundation, which raised $830,000 last October for the Madison's Place universal-access playground with the help of local businesses and other community groups.

The city also noted the community's work with Feed My Starving Children, a charity that gathered more than 20,000 volunteers prepare and pack 4 million meals during one event.

Lisa Engh, director of missions at King of Kings Lutheran Church and an organizer of the Feed My Starving Children event, said talking with members of other cities, as well as others in Woodbury, inspired her to create more collaborative projects in the future.

Engh was part of a delegation to Denver that included Gridley, Stephens, Sarah Alig, Kathy Barton, Kayte Barton, Maria Bitanga, Naomi Brown, Dave Gunnlaugsson, Rob James, Ryder James, Emma Jarrett, Corrine Johnson, Gene Johnson, Bob Klatt, Bob McSherry, Dana and Dave Millington, Manashree Padiyath, Lisa Palermo, Nikki Robbins, and Jonathan Williams-Kinsel.

"It was really special to be with changemakers in my own community ... but I still think we could do better," Engh said.

Judges deliberated for about five hours before awarding the 10 winning cities, Gridley said.

Those who attended said judges feedback was largely positive, but some on the panel said the city did not focus on its difficulties and challenges, and did not supply enough metrics and other data to show community impact.

"I think Minnesotans tend to be more optimistic about the present and the future more than the past," Gridley said. "So that was a good critique of perhaps why we didn't get to the next level."

Gridley said a judge told him that had the competition been for most progressive city, Woodbury would have certainly won.

Stephens said she was honored the city was named a finalist in its first entry into the contest but wasn't sure if the city would submit an application next year.

"We want to take some learning out of all of this," she said.