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How do we find funding for cities? It’s all about getting creative with partnerships

December 11, 2018

By Heidi Peper and Lindsey Brown

Two funding experts share strategies for helping cities large and small secure hard-to-find dollars that move projects from concept to construction

Cities large and small across the country have experienced some level of economic distress and staff reductions since the recession of 2007–09. This has caused deferral of much needed maintenance of critical infrastructure.

Additionally, there seems to be an increasing number of regulations put on cities in maintaining their infrastructure without the requisite funding to adhere to these regulations. Cities are stretching their budgets to accommodate basic needs, and outside money can move redevelopment projects from concept to construction. Meet our funding experts who will share their thoughts on how to find funding for cities:

  • Heidi Peper: With more than 20 years of experience in community and economic development, Heidi has successfully secured more than $175 million in grants for clients’ projects. She leads a coordinated effort between finding and securing funding, building strong relationships, and identifying opportunities to provide greater value to clients.
  • Lindsey Brown: Lindsey is a project coordinator committed to making a difference in the communities she serves. Since 2013, she’s assisted in the grant writing process on dozens of grants and has been part of implementing more than $1 million in successful funding.

Over the past several years, our brownfield team has helped city officials obtain more than $2.5 million in federal and state funding to remediate and redevelop 31 acres of vacant and contaminated riverfront parcels in Wausau, Wisconsin.

Q: What issues are you seeing in terms of cities trying to find funding?

Heidi: They know they have a need and they know they don’t have the required funds to move the project forward, but many are unsure of where to start. New programs are popping up all the time, existing programs that they may be familiar with are being defunded, and those that remain are being changed constantly. It’s not easy to keep up with the ever-changing world of funding.

Lindsey: Communities, no matter what their size, want to make improvements. But with changes come costs, and many more times than not, that cost outweighs the budget. Community leaders know that improving their communities draws new residents in and retains existing residents, but figuring out how to pay for improvements is the biggest issue.  

Q: What recommendations do you have for smaller communities trying to find funding?

Lindsey: Start with brainstorming, and get your community’s needs and wants in writing. Then, prioritize those items. What is most important to the people you serve? Is it a water project, downtown revitalization, a new park?

It’s important to have a deep understanding of the project at hand and know all the angles that might attract outside funding.

Next, figure out what the budget is, and if you’ll need outside funding. If so, what agency can you communicate with to figure out the who, what, and where to fund a project? Many times, it starts with just asking one agency. You’ll find that certain agencies may be a better fit for you and your project—find that agency and start building a relationship.

Heidi: It’s important to have a deep understanding of the project at hand and know all the angles that might attract outside funding. Is there an economic-development component? Is there a hazard-mitigation piece that could also lend to project funding? Communities need to think outside the box. And then reach out—reach out to their colleagues; chances are, their neighbors have experienced a similar situation. Reach out to state agency staff—the more you know them, and they know you, the easier it is to position yourself for success. Reach out to their consultants—financial adviser, attorney, engineer—any of these have likely had clients in similar situations.

Finally, allow for enough time. Putting together a well-rounded, successful funding package often takes 18 to 24 months.

The Wisconsin River shoreline in Wausau, Wisconsin, where our brownfield team has helped city officials obtain funds to help remediate and redevelop 31 acres of vacant and contaminated riverfront parcels.

Q: How can cities partner with existing economic groups?

Heidi: This really depends on where they are located. Some counties have economic development authorities, and some do not. Some areas have regional development commissions, and some do not. Know who is playing in your space and get to know them. It often takes multiple players to bring a project to fruition. At a minimum, get to know and partner with your state economic development agency.

Lindsey: In many states, there are regional development corporations (RDC) and/or community development agencies (CDA). These are important organizations. Many times, they know about local, state, and federal money and either have access to it or can assist with connecting you to get access.

We work with numerous RDCs and CDAs to assist them with federal funding. When up against stiff competition at the federal funding level, the RDCs and CDAs can provide a broader story behind the region than can one small community. For example, in Kansas, we are working with the Flint Hills Regional Council (FHRC) to implement a $600,000 U.S. EPA brownfield grant covering a seven-county region. Without FHRC, many of the counties and communities FHRC serves would not have access to this type of money to assist with redeveloping blighted sites.

In Kansas, we recently assisted the Flint Hills Regional Council with a U.S. EPA Coalition Assessment application for $600,000. The grant will be used for inventory prioritization, site assessments, reuse planning, community outreach, and other pre-cleanup activities.

Q: Can cities find successes working with their county?

Lindsey: Yes! Like an RDC and/or CDA, the county may have access to funds they can get to your community and/or direct you to an agency that does. It never hurts to ask—you may find out there are a lot of options for you with your county staff. Also, just like an RDC or CDA, your county can also be a grantee for federal funds. In Wisconsin, we are working with the Washington County staff and the communities to assist with using U.S. EPA brownfield money to work on sites from the largest city in the county (West Bend, population 31,000) down to the smaller communities, like Richfield (population 11,000). Without the county pursuing these funds, many of the cities might not have access to this type of funding and dollar amounts.

Heidi: Their county should always be at least a “stop on their path,” a check-in point. Just like in most things in life, some are better than others. Some may not have the resources or political will to partner with their cities, and in some instances, it may be a case-by-case basis. A good first stop would be with the county commissioner that represents the city. Educate the commissioner on the community’s needs, the proposed project(s), and enlist their support with the county board and staff. 

  • Heidi Peper

    As our senior funding leader, Heidi leads a coordinated effort between finding and securing funding, building strong relationships, and identifying opportunities to provide greater value to clients.

    Contact Heidi
  • Lindsey Brown

    Lindsey works on business development, grant writing, and research as they relate to brownfield redevelopment projects.

    Contact Lindsey
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