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New grant program offers big money for transformational change in Appalachian Ohio

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Half a billion dollars has a way of getting people’s attention.

Representatives from local governments, nonprofit groups and other community organizations packed a large room for a recent presentation in Athens on how to get some of this money.

The funds are being distributed through the Appalachian Community Grant Program. The state created the program with $500 million in federal Covid relief funds.

“It’s hugely exciting,” said Nick Tepe, director of the Athens County public library system. “This is a historic amount of funding that’s being put into the Appalachian counties in Ohio.”

Tepe attended the recent information session in Athens hosted by Buckeye Hills Regional Council, which is helping communities navigate this historic opportunity in the eight counties it serves in southeast Ohio.

As big as the new grant program is, it certainly won’t solve all the challenges facing the Appalachian region.

“But this is a fantastic start,” Tepe said. “And I have no doubt that it is going to make a huge difference for this whole region.”

Luann Cooperrider, a juvenile court judge in Perry County, attended a similar presentation that Buckeye Hills hosted recently in New Lexington, which was also packed wall to wall with people.

“This could really be a game changer for little towns like where I’m from,” she said.

Cooperrider grew up in the village of Thornville in northern Perry County, where she still lives. Like so many small communities in southeast Ohio, it has suffered from decades of economic decline.

Thornville’s downtown is dotted with vacant, rundown buildings that were once grocery stores, restaurants, banks.

“Eighty-two percent of the people that live in Perry County have to go somewhere else to work,” Cooperrider said. “While I don’t know that this money can change that, it certainly can have a phase of economic revival.”

The challenge small communities face when it comes to grants is they often lack the resources to put together a competitive application that meets all the specific criteria for a particular grant program. Local government officials often have full-time jobs, leaving them little time outside of work to deal with municipal issues. And much of this time may be consumed just keeping the town running.

The result is that small communities may end up unable to apply for grants intended to benefit them.

“Little mayors and commissioners, they don’t know how to do this stuff,” Cooperrider said. “So we lose. We lose again. And we always think, ‘Oh well, we wouldn’t get it anyway or something like that.’”

The Governor’s Office of Appalachia, which is administering the new grant program, seems quite attuned to these challenges. Some of that $500 million is set aside for planning grants intended to help communities cover the costs of putting together a solid grant application. The office is also contracting with architects, engineers and other professionals who will be available at no cost to help with planning.

Also, this program does not require applicants to put up any matching funds, meaning it will cover 100 percent of allowable costs. Fred Redfern, a council member in the village of Crooksville in Perry County, said this is huge for small communities, which often lack matching funds or the ability to raise or borrow the money.

“We’ve thrown everything we could, that we thought would be eligible for funding, at this program for the simple reason there’s zero match,” he said.

It’s time to think big

The new grant program is not without its challenges. It’s a lot of money, and the state has made it clear it’s looking for projects that are regional and also transformational.

“And everybody’s sort of struggled with that term a little bit about what does that mean,” said Chasity Schmelzenbach, executive director of Buckeye Hills Regional Council.

The state has issued a detailed scoring rubric explaining how applications will be evaluated. It’s clear the governor’s office is expecting communities to work together across county lines. The biggest points are for projects that have the greatest regional impact and involve multiple counties.

Schmelzenbach said communities should not think so much in terms of individual projects, but instead think big and envision what they want their communities and this region to look like in 20 years.

“That is the challenge that we’ve been charged with from the governor with this program,” she said. “We’re giving you seed money. Go forward, do good things. And turn that 500 million dollars into our future.”

Buckeye Hills is offering its services as matchmaker. It’s asking communities in the region it serves to funnel all their project ideas to it so that it can figure out which ones make sense to bundle together into a single application.

More than 100 people participated in a recent video call with Buckeye Hills to pitch projects for their communities. And that was just one of three video calls scheduled that day to gather ideas.

It turns out that half a billion dollars also has a way of bringing people together.

“I am seeing new relationships being forged, not just across county boundaries but also across agencies in a way that I certainly would have liked to have seen long before this but now it’s actually happening,” Tepe with Athens County libraries said. “And I think that that will continue regardless of what happens with the actual funding.”

Another challenge is the program comes with some tight deadlines. Applications for planning grants are due Dec. 9. This is just seven weeks after guidelines for the program were announced. Applications for project grants are due next December, and projects funded must be completed by the end of October 2026.

That may seem like a long time, but the project funds will not be awarded until early 2024, and if supply chain issues and workforce shortages remain a problem, that could complicate efforts to meet deadlines.

“The short timelines make it really challenging to figure out how to do the things that are going to be transformational and do it quickly,” said Debbie Phillips, chief executive officer of Rural Action, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable regional development in Appalachian Ohio.

Sprucing up downtowns a top priority

To be considered for funding under this program, projects must fall into one of three broad categories: downtown revitalization and related infrastructure, healthcare and workforce. Projects that embrace two or all three of these categories get extra points.

For many communities, revitalizing their struggling downtowns is at the top of the list.

For some, like Crooksville, this means sprucing up storefront facades to create a more uniform appearance, fixing sidewalks and adding more lighting. For others, like Thornville, it means finding new uses for long-abandoned buildings, like restaurants and loft apartments and remote work spaces.

And for some communities, it means pretty much starting over.

“We’ve lost a lot of buildings over time that have deteriorated, and so we kind of have a clean slate, which is good in some ways, and so we want to take the opportunity to see how we might redevelop that,” said Amy Renner, mayor of the village of Chauncey in Athens County. 

The hope is that this will draw people back into these once vibrant downtown areas and become a catalyst for more economic development.

“We all struggle and this grant is an opportunity of a lifetime … to see things come back to our small towns and villages,” said Redfern, the Crooksville council member. “Bring back the camaraderie, the hometown feel and the relationships that we used to have that we don’t have anymore since people moved away.”

Another popular idea is leveraging the region’s industrial and cultural heritage and its natural beauty to develop museums, trails and other attractions that will become tourist destinations.

Chauncey is already the main access point for the Baileys Trail System, a growing network of mountain bike trails that when completed will be the largest of its kind east of the Mississippi River.

Not far from the Chauncey trailhead are some buildings left over from the big coal mining operation that once occupied this space and served as an economic engine for the village. Village leaders are thinking about using one or more of those buildings to create a museum showcasing its industrial heritage.

“We’re interested in interpreting that space so that people who are visiting can kind of stick around and check out what else we have to offer there in that area,” Renner said.

And it’s not just communities that are eligible for funding under this grant program. Nonprofit organizations can apply as well.

Rural Action operates a makerspace in Athens that is a combination woodshop and metal shop. It’s already been using the space for workforce training, and grant funds would allow it to rapidly scale this up, with money to expand and pay instructors and partner with community colleges so that people can get technical credentials.

“If we can help people learn how to use that equipment, there are businesses who will hire them,” Phillips said.

What the Appalachian Community Grant Program seems to have already accomplished without awarding a single dollar yet is instilling a new sense of hope about the future of a region that has grown used to disappointment.

“Everybody wants to see this little area rise up,” Cooperrider said. “I think it’s going to happen. It’s not going to be overnight. It’s going to be frustrating. But by God, we’re not walking away.”