Sidebar: Routes to CDBG Eligibility: Automatic,
Labor-intensive, Politically Charged

Grant Funding

(from Maine Townsman, January 2009)
By Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer

Whose eyes don’t light up when they hear of unspent money in a grant program? “Aha,” you probably think. “Let’s apply for that grant next year because we’ll surely get it.”

Grant money is often thought of as a Holy Grail. And in tax-hike-averse communities, it’s sometimes the only way to make new things happen. But there is a reason to be selective in grant money. I know of some expensive exercise equipment that was acquired through a popular grant program that today gets very little use. “What a waste,” I think every time I see it. The point is: landing a grant is not an end in itself. If you get grant funding you don’t truly need, chances are whatever you’ve acquired will probably get little use. What’s the point?

There’s also a word to be said against chasing the latest grant opportunity. While a quick-response capability is valuable, it should not drive decision-making, warns George “Bud” Finch, city manager of Eastport.

“Far too often, grants become spur-of-the-moment decisions in terms of who has an idea, what is out there for money,” Finch wrote in an email. “While this can be successful, it is not really a winning formula. These spur-of-the-moment decisions are most often due to the lack of a long term plan to meet the variety of needs of a community.”

Where to start?

Far more productive than starting with an obvious grant source is to start with an obvious community need. So what’s a worthy project? Look in your Comprehensive Plan. If you don’t have a Comprehensive Plan, look at past budgets. Are there projects that are perennially included in draft budgets, but eliminated before the budget is finalized? Does the board of selectmen or town council have formal goals? What do people around town complain about? Is it the eyesore building in the middle of town, or that kids have nothing to do after school? Those are places to start. With a worthy project in hand, writing the grant becomes an exercise in telling it like it is, rather than an exercise in linguistic acrobatics.

To maximize your opportunities, it helps to be prepared.

The City of Easport (population 1,640), for example, maintains a priority list of projects, constantly updated, so it can easily take advantage of grant opportunities as they arise, Finch said. The list incorporates the needs of the Eastport Port Authority, the Eastport Municipal Airport, the Eastport Art Association, the Passamaquoddy Water District and the Maine Marine Trades School.

“I believe part of the reason we have been successful in our grant approach is due to our basic policy of what we are looking to accomplish and when. This is driven by our overall plan that is all encompassing in terms of boilerplate information readily available and updated regularly. This allows us to respond quickly to the grant process, while greatly reducing the frustration that comes with putting a grant together,” says Finch.

Sometimes the degree of preparedness is daunting, as was recently discovered by the town of Lebanon, (population 5,083). The town badly needs a new fire station and would be eligible for the CDBG program, except that it has never adopted a comprehensive plan, a lengthy and often controversial process. “We are losing out on a lot of money by not having a comprehensive plan,” Selectman Jason Cole told the Observer newspaper recently, “but we need more volunteers and more support to make it happen.” So, while Lebanon selectmen initiate the comprehensive planning process, the town will cope a little longer with the Blaisdell Corner Fire Station, where the plumbing leaks raw sewage, the second floor is off-limits for public functions because of substandard floor joists, and there is insufficient clearance in the overhead garage-bay doors. Even without a Comp Plan, Lebanon has managed in recent years to land $125,000 in grants – firefighting turnout gear, medical testing equipment, a utility ATV and money for teaching CPR classes. Cole’s wife Samantha “spends a lot of time researching grants, attending different conferences, grant writing workshops.” The Coles willingly share what they know with neighboring towns: “In these small towns, a lot of times there’s not a lot of money. It’s difficult. Grants are the only way to get anything extra,” said Cole.

Where to look

If your community has never applied for grants, chances are your community is probably pretty needy. Needy communities should not feel intimidated at having to compete with communities far more experienced and successful because there are grant programs that are particularly oriented to needy communities. If you have a substantial bricks-and-mortar project, two places to consider are the state’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program and USDA Rural Development program of the federal Department of Agriculture. Both programs serve Maine’s neediest communities, but have different eligibility criteria. The Rural Development program is for communities of no more than 20,000 residents and where median incomes are less than 80 percent of the state median. The agency has offices in Scarborough, Bangor, Lewiston and Presque Isle. The CDBG program, administered in Augusta by the Department of Economic and Community Development is open to any community as long as the project either benefits low and moderate income people or if it eliminates slum and blight conditions. Just determining CDBG eligibility can be quite involved. (see sidebar on page 13.)

It also takes time to learn the ropes. The Maine Department of Economic and Community Development requires CDBG applicants to have completed a one-day training session. Some small communities rely on a regional planning commission or economic development council to access these programs.

Jim Batey of the Somerset County Economic Development Corporation conducts yearly outreach efforts to spread the word, but says many communities are still unaware or reluctant to take advantage of the programs, even though his services are free.

“I think communities that have worked with programs in the past are less apprehensive, they know the program can work for them,” he said. “I’ve had communities that were reluctant to apply because it seemed like welfare -- that old Yankee reliance, but then I’ve had communities (who) felt entitled and (that they) should get more.”

Rural Development funding helped Bingham and neighboring communities buy a $120,000 ambulance and helped Bingham renovate an old meeting house. Rural Development and CDBG funding helped finance Maine Wood Pellet Co.’s $7 million plant in Athens, he said.

Collaborate, leverage

Many people instinctively believe the right mindset for attracting grant funding is to poor-mouth yourself. There is a logic to it. Benefactors like to think their money is needed so tugging at their heart strings is a prerequisite for getting them to open their wallet. But the woe-is-me strategy is not sufficient in itself. Put yourself in the grant maker’s shoes. Which projects would you rather fund:

(A) sidewalk repairs in a low-income neighborhood where absentee landlords hold sway, or (B) park improvements in that same neighborhood, in which neighborhood teens contribute labor and where improvements will lead to greater use of the park?

(A) demolition of a derelict building and construction of a parking lot?, or (B) dismantling that derelict building as a training exercise for building-trades students, and construction of a parking lot that makes possible a new housing project?

The answers should be obvious. Everyone likes to think they’re getting a bang for their buck. Appeal to their preference for projects that trigger bigger improvements. Show them how you “collaborate” with other partners, and how you “leverage” your money. Wow them with how you can to make things happen, that you can turn a small advantage into a big gain. One of the shifts going on in the grant-making world is a change away from a “needs-based” approach to community development and toward an “asset-based” approach to community development. Think of the former as big government doling out benefits to passive recipients. Think of the latter as a more entrepreneurial, grassroots model.

Build on what you have

In putting projects together, it’s always easier to build off existing momentum. Volunteers in Pittsfield (population 4,214) have mobilized to rejuvenate The Pinnacle, a rope-tow ski hill and fond relic of a bygone era. The Town of Pittsfield capitalized on this enthusiasm with a larger initiative to transform The Pinnacle into a four-season park. This dovetailed with the town council’s recent focus on economic development and with stewardship initiatives of the Sebasticook River Watershed Association. The result was Pinnacle Park Recreation Plan, which calls for a covered skating rink, a boat launch on the Sebasticook River, trails connecting to other trails and parks, bird-watching leantos, a parking area and education programs. Pittsfield was recently awarded $32,2000 of the Phase I capital cost of $96,600 under the Riverfront Community Development Bond.

“It is so exciting,” said Town Manager Kathryn Ruth. She attributed the town’s recent success to a renewed emphasis on economic development by the town council, a prioritization process with significant community involvement and continual feedback to the town council and the community. She said she finds residents reluctant to serve on committees with continual involvement, but very interested in getting involved in specific projects. Grant funding is really the only avenue for developing new initiatives, “if you don’t want to raise taxes,” she said.

Another example of piggybacking is how Eastport has turned airport improvements into park improvements. The federal government has funded a perimeter fence and access road about the Eastport Municipal Airport. Eastport also wanted to extend hiking trails around town and so is using the perimeter road as a bike and walking path connection between Shackford Head State Park and Eastport Picnic Area on Route 190, explained Town Manager Finch. The trail will extend the four miles of hiking trails at the state park with another three miles of paved path. “Instead of taking the approach most often used which looks at a project as if it was a postage stamp, we look at projects as a piece of a puzzle thus determining not only how it fits in its place but how it complements the rest of the puzzle,” Finch wrote.

Another way to piggyback is to find partners to share the load and to magnify your effort. Sometimes these partners are right at hand. The Town of Winthrop (population 6,232) runs a regional dispatch center for surrounding Kennebec County communities. Winthrop has won back-to-back Public Safety Interoperability Grants of $124,000 and $60,000 from the Maine Emergency Management Agency by showing improvements to the dispatch center also benefit Wayne, Readfield, Manchester, Mount Vernon, Fayette and Vienna. Police Captain Brian Frost said he had limited experience in grant writing, but found the regional approach works. “We already cooperate on mutual aid,” he said. His advice: “Talk, ask questions, Don’t be scared of it, just do it.”

Easy programs

Okay, so what are some easy grant programs? Surprising as it may sound, one of the easiest grant programs to access is the state’s Brownfields program, which funds the assessment and clean up of contaminated industrial sites. This is distinct from the federal Brownfields program, which is highly competitive and notoriously difficult to navigate without expensive consultants. The state has established its own Brownfields program, with pass through money from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and it’s geared to small towns that don’t have the expertise to access the federal program. The state contracts directly with environmental consultants on behalf of towns, so towns don’t have to go through the hiring process themselves, explained Nick Hodgkins of the DEP.

“Just contact us and get in the cue,” he said. “It’s an easy process. Someone at the town office could do one of these [applications] in 20 minutes and if they have any questions call us. They can even send us an incomplete application. We’ll work with them.”

The small towns of Perry, Washburn, Roxbury Bradley, Vinalhaven, Milo and China have all taken advantage of the program, he said. The caveat is that not every contaminated site is eligible. The state wants to avoid cleaning up sites owned by “multi-million dollar companies” and petroleum sites tend not to be eligible, Hodgkins said. “We’re trying to tweak it, to make it easier,” he said.

The town of China used the state Brownfields program to verify the cleanliness of a site under consideration for purchase by a machine shop that was leasing the site, explained Town Manager Don L’Heureux. “It was very, very helpful,” he said. “Probably some of their decision [to buy]was based on there was no leaching.”

If your community is interested in sprucing up the gateway into town or in taking advantage of the forestry potential of town-owned woodlands, consider Project Canopy. This Maine Forest Service program funds up to half the cost of new tree plantings, inventories of streetscape trees and the hiring of foresters to prepare forest management plans. It’s a relatively straightforward grant application.

Even easier to apply for is the current park improvement program advertised by KaBoom!, a non-profit dedicated to building playgrounds, and Stonyfield Farm Yogurt. They’re giving away two $50,000 grants for park improvements and the winner will be determined solely by whichever community group turns in the most Stonyfield Farm Yogurt lids.

Lee Burnett is a freelance writer (and also a grant writer) from Sanford.