Durham has been named one of 20 cities competing for millions of dollars in grants from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge for innovative solutions to major city challenges.

The competition between American cities encourages local governments to resolve issues through original and impactful idea proposals. In November, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced 20 finalists chosen out of 305 applications from cities across the country. One finalist will be chosen in the spring to receive the $5 million grand prize and four runners-up will receive $1 million each.

The Durham project proposes entrepreneurship hubs in three struggling neighborhoods to encourage job creation, workforce training, housing development and economic growth, said Constance Stancil, director of the Neighborhood Improvement Services Department.

“It is an idea space where [residents] can feel free in deciding what happens in their community,” Stancil said. “The community will serve as the decision makers. We can share knowledge with people and bring them to a point where they create and design their own solution for creating jobs, housing and small businesses.”

The project is facilitated by the Durham Urban Innovation Center and began when the center hired a neighborhood development specialist with a background in planning and architecture a year ago. Since then, the project has grown to become a community-driven process that involves both state and local agents as well as Durham residents who meet on a monthly basis.

“This changes the way business is done and changes the relationship between the city and its residents,” said Wanona Satcher, manager of the project and neighborhood development specialist at the Neighborhood Improvement Services Department. “Our goal is to affect as many people as possible.”

After the finalists were announced, a team from Durham traveled to the Bloomberg Ideas Camp in New York City. There, the group worked with experts to refine their ideas and hone their approach. The team will resubmit a final proposal in January to be considered for the prize.

Criteria for the contest include having a visionary approach, showing potential for positive impact, being realistically implementable and creating solutions that can be replicable in other cities.

“To be selected as a finalist from more than 300 submissions across the country speaks volumes about the potential value of this project to Durham and to other cities,” said Durham Mayor Bill Bell in a press release last month. “This project presents Durham with an exciting opportunity to be transformative in a unique way which, if executed, could have a very positive impact on Durham in general and specifically for the people in the selected neighborhoods.”

Other projects competing for the top prize include a real-time pattern detection analytics platform in Chicago, a single-bin waste diversion and recovery project in Houston and an infant mortality prevention initiative in Cincinnati. Satcher said the Durham project is the only one of its kind and establishes a partnership among city agencies, entrepreneurs, students and residents.

“The project is very organic and can be replicated anywhere out of state,” Satcher said. “Whatever travels in the Durham community­—interesting innovative concepts and projects—will have a general impact not just today and will continue over time.”

If implemented, the project will extend to the Duke community as well. Stancil expressed interest in involving students with knowledge and passion for education, law, business and public policy in particular.

“We definitely need help with a way we can articulate the policy benchmarks we want­—to take that concept and prove that it works,” Satcher said.

Stancil noted that the end goal of the Durham project is about more than just repainting houses and swapping out their residents, which she said marks a departure from previous initiatives. She said the end goal, rather, is to raise the bar and set higher standards of living in Durham above the bare minimum.

“It is more than just empowering people,” Stancil said. “It is promoting freedom to decide what will happen in their life—providing them freedom of choice, thought and action.”