More than 80 representatives from about a dozen local rural communities and organizations showed up at last week's Greater Kenai Peninsula Funding Summit for Small Communities in Soldotna at the Aspen Hotel, blowing away the expected attendance.
The event put officials from small peninsula towns and villages face to face with front-line decision makers from a host of state and federal funding agencies.
"Our initial expectations were to have about 45 attend," said Andrew Schmahl, project coordinator for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Economic Development District Inc., which helped put on the two-day confab. "The response was overwhelming."
At least some of the community leaders who attended left the affair several important steps closer to seeing some of their community dreams realized, said Jim Carter, executive director of the KPBEDD.
The event gave the small, generally underfunded communities a chance to "get back on the radar screens" of state and local agencies who have control over funding that could help their projects see the light of day, he said.
Among the communities and organizations that sent representatives were Hope, Nanwalek, Ninilchik, Port Graham, Seldovia, Tyonek, Nikolaevesk, Anchor Point and Funny River, as well as the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and Ionia Inc.
They met with state and federal agency officials, including those from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Economic Deve-lopment Administration, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development and others.
During the two-day conference, community leaders had a chance to pitch their pet projects and programs to a panel of agency representatives, Schmahl said.
"The folks who did come, especially those from places like Tyonek, Nanwalek, Seldovia and Port Graham, have never had the opportunity to discuss their projects face to face with the people who make the decisions."
Among the issues facing smaller communities is the migration of young residents to jobs and opportunities elsewhere, something many of the villages saw happening in the 1990s, Carter said. Some of the projects those communities want funded would produce jobs that could lead some people to stay rather than leave.
One such project is in Port Graham, where the community wants to expand its cannery and add a processing plant that would allow it to go beyond simple canning to include such things as production of fish meal, fish oil, smoked canned salmon, cold storage and more.
"The EDA rep was very helpful in giving us additional information about what we should be thinking about, and he will be talking to us further on that idea," said Pat Norman, chief of the Port Graham Village Council.
The village already has submitted a grant proposal trying to get $30,000 to do a feasibility study that will put many of the aspects of an expanded plant into perspective. The proposal pitched last week, however, was for funding the building itself. A processing plant able to add value to fish products would have ripple effects on the economy beyond Port Graham, he said.
Norman said the funding summit was well worthwhile, and the experience broadened the community's horizons in the world of project funding.
"It was a good thing for Port Graham," he said. "I've never been to one like that where all the granting agencies were there."
Another project that found immediate assistance was Ionia Inc., a small community that offers an environment for mentally disabled people and their families located in Cohoe.
Cathy Creighton, a board member of Ionia Inc., said the community has been working on a log building project for more than two years.
With the exterior nearly complete, they were looking at not being able to use the structure this winter for lack of funds to complete construction and furnish the interior.
"We went to the funding summit in hopes of getting funding," Creighton said.
They found it. Al Ewing, chief of staff of the Denali Commission, was so impressed with the Ionia project he OK'd a $67,000 grant to the community to complete the building.
"They gave us the $67,000 kind of on the spot," Creighton said. Actually, the check came shortly afterwards.
Creighton said the summit really worked for Ionia and she praised Carter and Schmahl and the KPEDD for "really going the extra mile."
"We were extremely impressed and very heartened by the funding summit," she said. "Especially Al Ewing of the Denali Commission. He was a total hero for Ionia."
All told, some 20 projects were pitched to the various agencies, Schmahl said. Among the prime benefits was the ability of communities to identify funding sources.
Carter said the effort built the capacity of the small, rural communities to access funding. The funding summit also helped the KPBEDD, which has had "some lean years," build its own resume as an aiding agency, Carter said.
He said there was a great deal of public interest in the summit, so much so that it had to be limited to the rural communities.
"There is demand for this kind of summit like you wouldn't believe," he said, adding that it could well become an annual event.
"The original intent was to have funding agencies educate the small communities," Schmahl said. "One of the beneficial outcomes was that we saw a lot of one community helping another. In the truest sense of the word it was a real collaborative effort."
Among the follow-up efforts the KPBEDD will perform are helping communities such as Ninilchik and Tyonek write community plans, documents that are prerequisites to obtaining many state and federal grants, Schmahl said.
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