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Infrastructure ‘Boot Camps’ Help Small Cities Get Grants

A training program operated by the National League of Cities helps small cities apply directly for federal infrastructure funding. Participating cities have won $428 million since last summer.

Globe, Ariz. Using the National League of Cities boot camp program, the city applied for a Safe Streets and Roads for All planning grant to build ADA-accessible crosswalks and slow down traffic on its downtown corridor. (Wikipedia)
In Brief:
  • Small cities are eligible to apply for millions in infrastructure funding, but many don’t have the know-how or staff power to build applications.

  • The National League of Cities along with Bloomberg Philanthropies and other groups are running boot camps to help them navigate grant opportunities.

  • More than 600 cities have participated in the boot camps, with new registrations opening later this summer.

  • Maria Tidwell is a code enforcement officer for Gladewater, Texas, a town of 6,100 people about halfway between Dallas and Shreveport. It’s a rural place, Tidwell says, and its infrastructure is minimal: It’s not easy for everyone to get to hospitals or grocery stores.

    “Our water lines need updating. We need new sewer lines. We don’t have sidewalks,” Tidwell says. “We are kind of an impoverished community.”

    An East Texas native, Tidwell spent the first part of her career as a news producer, working for several years in New York City before returning home to start a family. She started working as an administrative assistant at a water plant, and now considers government work a second career: She’s finishing a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Texas at Tyler and aims to work as a city manager someday.

    While working on a paper last semester about how small cities can access federal infrastructure funding, she stumbled on a program run by the National League of Cities (NLC), which is designed to help them do exactly that. In the spring, she enrolled in a “boot camp” training designed around the U.S. Department of Transportation’s $5 billion Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A), which helps cities plan and implement street safety improvement projects. On behalf of Gladewater, she recently applied for a $250,000 planning grant to build new sidewalks. She’s hoping to hear whether her application will be awarded in October.

    “It’s daunting to apply for federal funds,” Tidwell says. “You think of a grant writer that’s trained in grant writing — those are in bigger towns. We don’t have that in Gladewater. Luckily I am in a small town where the mayor and the city manager said, ‘Go for it.’”

    Helping Cities Advocate for Themselves

    Since last summer, more than 600 cities have participated in one of NLC's boot camp trainings, according to Jonathan Kuhl, a senior executive at NLC. The trainings are part of the Local Infrastructure Hub, a $50 million effort to help cities navigate new federal infrastructure funding opportunities, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, Ballmer Group, Emerson Collective, Ford Foundation and The Kresge Foundation. The boot camps are run by NLC, which is wrapping up its third round of trainings and preparing to open registration for a fourth round, Kuhl says.

    “They’re kind of like college courses,” Kuhl says. “It’s a three- to four-month course and they are all on separate topics that are tied to specific grant opportunities. And they’re timed to correspond with the deadlines for those.”

    The boot camps include weekly meetings with different subject matter experts, who help participating cities understand the aims of various federal funding programs. Organizers provide participants with templates, tools and white papers to get up to speed on relevant issues, and walk cities through all the data and documentation requirements that go into federal grant applications.

    The boot camps are open to cities with populations of 150,000 or less. Allowing small cities to apply directly for federal funding, rather than having to go through states or regional planning organizations, was an important component of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that the NLC had lobbied for, Kuhl says.

    “For these small and mid-sized cities, they didn’t have the expertise or staff manpower to put together these competitive applications for the funding, so that was sort of the challenge,” Kuhl says.

    To date, Kuhl says, 60 participating cities have won 71 grants worth a total of $428 million, with more funding yet to be awarded. Cities that have enrolled in boot camps are three times more likely to win funding than those that haven’t, he says. Around 40 percent of participating cities have populations below 10,000. The trainings are free and there’s no upper limit on the number of participants.

    The current round of boot camps focuses on five grant programs, which help cities address dangerous railroad crossings, improve drinking water quality, build broadband infrastructure, address mobility barriers caused by transportation infrastructure and restore bridges. Registration for the next round of boot camps will open at the end of the summer.

    After the first round of boot camps, Kuhl says NLC determined it was better for participating cities to have a specific project or set of projects in mind when they go into the trainings, rather than exploring funding opportunities generally. NLC staff now work individually with cities that want to participate but haven’t identified a specific project yet, he says.

    Transformational Investments

    Overall, the investments in the IIJA and the Inflation Reduction Act will be “transformational” for cities, Kuhl says. And for the smallest cities, the boot camp trainings have made a big difference in being able to apply for funding.

    Connie Callaway joined the city of Globe, Ariz., as its first grant manager last fall, and has enrolled in two NLC boot camps since then. After the first round, the city applied for a Safe Streets and Roads for All planning grant to build ADA-accessible crosswalks and slow down traffic on its downtown corridor. Currently, drivers exit U.S. Route 60 at high speeds and end up right downtown, and the city is hoping to narrow the entrance to the downtown corridor to signal that cars should slow down, Callaway says.

    There’s also a bridge that recently had its weight limit downgraded, and if it’s downgraded anymore, emergency vehicles and school buses won’t be able to cross it. The alternate route has lots of steep hills and blind curves that would be tough for big vehicles to navigate, and there are 802 schoolchildren who need to cross that bridge on school buses, she says. The city is now enrolled in the NLC’s boot camp for the USDOT’s Bridge Investment Program, hoping to get funding to fix the bridge.

    “Hands down," Callaway says, "we’ll be doing every boot camp we can.”
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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