Cities benefit from use of CDBG funds for needed community projects

TML Communications Specialist

Improving local infrastructure for the benefit of rural and low-to-moderate income communities has long been a goal of the Community Development Block Grant program.

Historically, about one-third of each round of CDBG funding goes to public facilities and infrastructure projects across the nation. CDBG has improved public facilities that benefited more than 33.7 million people between fiscal years 2005 and 2013 alone.

Like many states across the nation, the bulk of Tennessee’s infrastructure funds are allocated for water and sewer projects, drainage systems, and street projects. However, these funds can also be used for more visible projects that stand to benefit the community at large.

Kent Archer, CDBG director for TECD’s Community and Rural Development Division, said many of these projects fall under the community livability grants, which are designed to improve services other than water and sewer or housing rehabilitation. While most funds in this category go for fire and emergency services grants, this category also can fund renovations to other types of community infrastructure.

“The intention with those funds is to improve health, safety, and quality of life,” he said. “It can be anything from rehabilitation work to a hospital to financing fire trucks and ambulances or blight eradication type projects. We also put in a few drainage mitigation projects in there as well.”
Only 2.9 percent of community livability projects awarded in Tennessee covered new building and infrastructure projects of non-residential structures, such as drainage construction, new street construction, and construction to community facilities. The reason for this is the competitiveness of the grant program.

Archer said when a community livability project like park improvements is compared to a project like constructing a new fire hall, the fire hall easily wins the scoring process. However, there are some projects that do meet scoring guidelines.

Philadelphia City Recorder Audrey Russell said her community is home to 656 people, one gas station, and no stoplights. The municipality, located in Loudon County, only has two full-time employees in addition to its mayor and aldermen. Philadelphia was already facing adversity when, in 2013, a meteorological phenomenon known as a wind shear devastated the city hall.

“It was an unusual circumstance,” she said. “The wind knocked down our city building and took with it everything we had. The building was more than 100 years old, and we were able to save some of the bricks that were handmade by slaves when it was originally built. There were vacant attached structures near it that were also affected.”

To replace the city hall structure, Philadelphia turned to the CDBG program. Russell said she worked on the CDBG grant for nearly two years – the first Philadelphia had ever applied for – and the city was awarded $280,000.

“We had to tear down what was left, and we purchased an additional vacant lot,” she said. “You don’t think about how much you have to pay to just tear something down. You have to pay for dumping and to haul that waste somewhere. The grant has paid for about a third of the construction cost. The grant was the catalyst for this project. If we didn’t get the grant, we would have to get a loan for the rest of the money. But the city wouldn’t have been able to finance the loan.”

Still under construction, Russell said the new city hall has evolved into a community centerpiece for Philadelphia.

“At first, we were just looking to replace what we originally had, but as time went on, the idea for the project began to grow and different things transpired,” Russell said. “Now, the project is a community center with a place for town hall meetings, places to reach city officials and leaders, and we have also taken on the volunteer fire department. The building will contain five bays for the fire department, a kitchen, sleeping quarters, and just better facilities. We also will have a place for an ambulance. This is the first time this area of the county will have its own ambulance service.”

While the grant was a catalyst for rebuilding city hall, Russell said the building project itself has been a catalyst for the hopes of Philadelphia’s residents.

“We are small town USA; we are smaller than what most people think of when they think of a small town,” she said. “We really are a tight-knit community. This is a launching platform for our town. Our citizens know how this town used to be, the potential it has and can fulfill. This new building gives them hope. If we can get this project done, there are some other things we can do and renew the place. We want to bring more to the community. It provides them with a sense of identity.”

Russell said rural communities often rely on grant programs.
“There is no way we would have been able to do this project without a grant,” she said. “We are a small town and don’t have a big source of tax revenue. Small local communities in rural areas usually have a population that drive to big cities to work. If you aren’t working in your community, that means there aren’t jobs and there isn’t that tax revenue. Also, a lot of people who live in our community came here to retire. Grants like this help us provide basic community functions, services, and needs, whether that be a fire department, parks, or a library. We don’t want to raise taxes on our citizens, and these grant programs allow us to give our citizens those things without having to raise taxes.”

In 2012, the city of Covington was presented with a unique opportunity to transform a piece of local history into a facility that could be used by city and county government officials as well as the public. Founded in 1839, Covington’s First Baptist Church was once located on Washington Avenue in downtown. When the congregation decided to expand to a new location in 2012, city officials negotiated to purchase the former church site for redevelopment.

Covington Mayor Justin Hanson said it is rare for a piece of real estate in downtown to become available, let alone one with so much space.
“There are two ages to the building, which made renovating it a challenge,” Hanson said. “There have been three churches on that site. The first burned and the second was built in the 1920s. Then, on Easter Sunday in 1962 the sanctuary of the church caught fire. Covington’s Fire Department was able to save the Sunday school building that was dated from the 1920s.”

The city paid $725,125 for the structure, and then was faced with finding funds to renovate the building. In 2013, Covington was granted $300,000 from the CDBG program to help fund the first phase of what would become a $1.3 million project. Hanson said the CDBG funds went to one of the most vital aspects of the building’s renovation: bringing it up to modern codes.

“The renovations were done in two phases, and the CDBG funds paid for the first phase of the renovations,” Hanson said. “That included making the building ADA compliant and asbestos free. There is always something to contend with when you are renovating a building. When you are dealing with a building that was built in two parts and have to bring it up to modern standards, you have to deal with certain challenges.”
Following the first phase of the renovations funded through the CDBG program, the city of Covington was able to move the Tipton County Commission on Aging into offices on the first floor within the former Sunday school building. When the second phase of renovations was completed, the city of Covington moved its own human resources department into the second floor of the Sunday school building and then opened the former sanctuary as an event center.

Now known as the Covington Civic Center, the building has become a gathering point for citizens.

“We have renamed the sanctuary the Tennessean Room, and we are renting it for business functions, school reunions, weddings, family gatherings, and so on,” he said. “The building is a block up from city hall, a block away from county government, and certainly in our community there is a need for a space like this. We’ve had town hall meetings there. It gives our local churches and nonprofits a sizable place to rent and to use for whatever function they see fit. There is a warming room there so food can be served. It’s now the most sizable event space in the county. We get calls every day from people who want to come and tour the facility. We have booked events as far forward as 2019 here.”
The city even held its annual Covington Daddy-Daughter Dance for the first time at the facility this year.

“The room can hosts an excess of 300 people,” he said. “Before, we had to hold events at the gymnasium at our city’s sportsplex. This large space has helped us double the number of attendees at our daddy-daughter dance. We have already planned some holiday events there later this year.”

There is an added benefit for city employees. While other branches of the city couldn’t locate into the building based on CDBG stipulations, Hanson said the city’s human resources department has found the location a perfect new home.

When you are dealing with HR issues, you need privacy and a place where employees can go and discuss things of a sensitive nature,” he said. “This created a win-win situation. We have more space at city hall, and HR has the privacy it needs.”

Without the CDBG funds, Hanson said it would have taken much longer for the project to get off the ground.
“CDBG dollars help communities like ours with economic development and infrastructure improvements,” Hanson said. “Cities across Tennessee face problems with revenue; we are essentially looking at property taxes and sales taxes. We have to leverage funds with grants to make these big projects happen. When you are able to apply for these CDBG dollars, you can use a local match and fund a sizable project. There are wide-ranging ways to spend this money. It helps communities like Covington make necessary improvements and improve quality of life. Cutting these funds would be detrimental to Covington and cities like Covington.”