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County officials held an open meeting May 6 to discuss proposed allocations of $2.4 million in federal aid.

This article was revised on May 11.

For over a year, much of economic activity in Jefferson County remained at a standstill as the global pandemic throttled tourism, emptied restaurants, and put an end to most events. Recently unprecedented numbers of residents lost work, and businesses were saddled with unanticipated new expenses.

Now, it’s payback time — and an opportunity for the county to make investments that could shape economic and human development for years to come.

The Jefferson County Commission on May 6 presented its first draft of a plan to allocate an anticipated $2.4 million in federal aid over two years in response to the COVID-19 crisis, addressing a broad range of community needs.

“This is an exciting time, really unprecedented in my time here, to have these sorts of resources out there,” said Tom Harrington, economic and community development agent at the Madison Jefferson County Extension office. “There are quite a bit of resources coming down in the very near future.”

The expected $2.4 million — a sum equal to about 10% of the county’s annual budget — would come from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), signed into law March 11, which provides for $362 billion in funding for state and local governments, including $65.1 billion in direct aid to counties. 

But the windfall doesn’t end there. ARPA also includes aid to municipalities, which will yield $303,000 to the city of Boulder and a comparable sum to the town of Whitehall; and $1.5 billion nationally for aid to counties with public lands, of which Jefferson County should receive a small share.

In addition, $2.3 billion of ARPA funds will flow through the state, much of that available for local infrastructure projects, child care, economic development, education, and more. House Bill 632, which determined the broad allocations, was signed into law by Governor Greg Gianforte on April 30; legislative committees will make recommendations on specific use of the funds beginning next month.

All of which has “people running around like drunken sailors,” joked Leonard Wortman, the County Commission Chair. “Right now, there is so much money floating around, and it’s not going to be here forever.”

The challenge, Wortman observed, is to maximize the leverage of the new aid. That means, in some cases, using relatively modest ARPA funds to match bigger grants available or expected from other entities. The county also is looking for investments that will have long-term ripple effects on economic development – as opposed to one-time boosts that produce only immediate or narrow benefit.

Like thousands of counties and municipalities across the nation confronting the same opportunity, Jefferson County has set to work to engineer a plan that will apply the ARPA funding to local priorities — while also trying to anticipate other, complementary grant opportunities. That work is expected to be demanding and complex – and to stretch out for years — which is why the county has budgeted $75,000 for a grants administrator who would apply for funding and track and report on spending.

The preliminary allocations presented May 6 at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds fell into six areas of investment:

Social safety net service: The county proposed allocating $100,000 to support new and existing child care facilities, identified as a critical need. It also earmarked $100,000 to the Health Department for protective equipment and expanded staff to continue COVID-19 vaccinations; and $50,000 to grants for assisted living facilities.  

Small business support: The county would allocate $200,000 to two revolving loan funds, administered by business development agencies serving the upper and lower halvs of the county, respectively, that would make loans at low interest rates. It also would offer business improvement grants.

Non-profit support: The county would make $100,000 available via one-time grants, via the Jefferson Valley Community Foundation and the Elkhorn Community Foundation, to non-profit organizations that have suffered financial duress during the pandemic. 

Economic Development: The plan earmarks $250,000 to provide technical assistance, financial management training, and workforce recovery support to county businesses. “These have been some pretty challenging times for some businesses,” Harrington said. “This is an opportunity to work with them to get them back on track. 

The county also would allocate $150,000 to abate and remove hazardous materials from the south campus of the Montana Developmental Center, and to redevelop the campus’ historic buildings – possibly converting some to affordable housing. “They’re beautiful buildings, but they’re sitting vacant and deteriorating,” Wortman said. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to keep patching them. So, we’ll either retrofit them or take them down and have the land available.”

Another $100,000 would go toward developing underutilized property in the county for housing or new business development, possibly in partnership with state and regional housing agencies.

Hospitality and tourism development: The county is eyeing the possibility of establishing a Western Legacy Center in Whitehall, seen as a potential tourist destination that also would provide a venue for local businesses to sell products. $300,000 in ARPA funds would go toward development of the center and promotion of regional tourism — potentially matched against grants from the U.S. Economic Development Administration — with another $100,000 earmarked for tourism promotion via the Boulder and Whitehall Chambers of Commerce and Discover Jefferson County.

Infrastructure expansion: The county expects that there will be many grant opportunities – including $400 million from the state — to support the expansion of broadband Internet service to remote areas of the county; it would set aside $200,000 of the ARPA funds to match those grants. It also would reserve $100,000 for planning and engineering, and $75,000 for support of water and sewer districts.

The preliminary allocations total $2 million, leaving another $370,188 up for grabs. Already, the county has received some suggestions. Commissioner Cory Kirsch proposed reserving $150,000 to pay county workers one-time bonuses of $1200 each for working through the pandemic. “I think we owe it to them…for staying the course, and it’s very doable.”

In addition, the county fairgrounds would like a grant to purchase playground equipment. Whitehall is short on matching funds for a sidewalk project; Boulder may seek county money to augment its direct aid. The Boulder Fitness Club asked to be in the mix as it seeks a new location. And the Boulder Hot Springs resort asked about the possibility of receiving matching funds for planned building improvements.

The County Commission will continue to accept input through June 4. It has scheduled a second public meeting for 6 p.m. Thursday, May 20, at Volunteer Hall. in Boulder.

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