Residents of Oakley, Idaho, population 635, dug their own ditches and laid their own water pipes so their town could afford a new water system.
Bayview, Idaho, residents pitched in to help build a senior center.
With federal grants increasingly uncertain, officials say Idaho’s rural communities need creative thinking, careful planning and budgeting and new approaches to build the public facilities they need.
More than 130 rural community leaders will gather today and Wednesday in Boise to learn how to win grants, find partners and plan ahead for their communities’ needs from sewers to sidewalks to parks.
“There’s a lot more responsibility being passed on to local communities and community leaders,” said Jan Peter Blickenstaff, community development administrator for the state Department of Commerce. “Big Brother is slowly backing out of the picture.”
Idaho hands out federal community development money in the form of grants to local communities. That money long has been rural communities’ only major funding source for public facilities. But the money is becoming increasingly uncertain, and the competition for the grants is stiff.
So this year, the Department of Commerce has converted its annual workshop for those getting grants into a broader conference on rural community development.
Walter Cairns, Post Falls city planner, will be there to look into his city’s chances of winning a grant to help create a downtown. “Most other cities have something they need to rehabilitate. We have something that we want to start,” he said.
If Post Falls officials’ vision becomes reality, a district now marked by mud and abandoned vehicles would become an employment center where office buildings would be clustered around a central downtown park and folks would feel comfortable strolling around.
Cairns hopes to explore grant options for the park, sidewalks, parking lots and other public facilities.
“Other than down Spokane Street, there are no sidewalks,” he said. “Pedestrians would have to walk in the mud. … We feel those kinds of things discourage the development of the downtown, and we want to do some things to clean it up and make it more attractive.”
The conference will include sessions on using volunteers, finding technical help, developing rate structures for small water systems, forming partnerships, overseeing construction, writing successful grant applications, dealing with changing federal agencies, and more.
Communities will be encouraged to plan for their major expenditures long in advance, so there’s more chance they’ll be able to afford them.
Idaho expects to award more than $10 million in community development grants this year, but only about $4.5 million has been passed out so far because of Congress’ failure to pass a budget. The rest has been placed on “standby” until Congress OKs the funding, which the state expects to happen within a few weeks.
Among the projects on standby is a $180,000 grant to upgrade sewer lines in Plummer, which are plagued by groundwater inflow problems that make sewage treatment more expensive.
“The cost of these projects is pretty steep,” Blickenstaff said.