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Published in Economic Development
Ottawa Co. plans to deploy $57M in federal relief funding for ‘long-term success’ Courtesy Photo

Ottawa Co. plans to deploy $57M in federal relief funding for ‘long-term success’

BY Sunday, July 17, 2022 06:29pm

Ottawa County looks to put $57 million in one-time federal pandemic relief funds toward what county Administrator John Shay calls “transformational” projects that can make a difference.

Affordable housing, expanding broadband internet access, support for businesses, and social and human services needs rank as the top priorities for Ottawa County. Local officials plan to seek proposals later this fall for the money that’s been made available through the federal American Rescue Plan Act that Congress enacted last year.

In crafting criteria for distributing the $57 million, county leaders sought to target the money toward projects that can drive “long-term change,” said Shay, who became Ottawa County’s administrator in March after four years as deputy administrator.

“We’re trying to look for transformational change,” said Shay, citing as examples the focus on affordable housing and extending broadband expansion coverage into unserved and underserved areas.

In affordable housing, for example, ARPA funds could assist financing for a project to develop new housing that’s considered affordable, whether starter homes or apartments, Shay said.

Shay has heard repeatedly from business leaders that the cost of housing has become an issue when working to attract employees to Ottawa County in a tight and fiercely competitive labor market where the local unemployment rate historically has been among the lowest in Michigan.

“We’ve heard from businesses that say it’s really hard to recruit employees to come to some of the major industries here because there’s nowhere affordable for workers to live,” Shay said.

Ottawa County commissioners should make decisions by the end of 2022 on using the first of multiple rounds of ARPA money, Shay said. Under the federal law, local officials have until the end of 2024 to distribute the money, which may also get used internally for county needs such as facility upgrades, he said.

Shay expects the county will generate “quite a bit” of interest from organizations seeking to tap ARPA funds that will probably exceed the available funding.

“We’ll get some interesting projects,” he said. “What will probably happen, like with anything, is we may get a lot of really great projects and you think, ‘Wow, we have $57 million.’ But it can go fast and it wouldn’t surprise me that we have to make decisions where we just can’t provide funding for a project where we have more requests than we have funding, so we have to make decisions on which is the higher priority.”

Expanding broadband service became a heightened priority for Ottawa and several other counties during the COVID-19 pandemic as many people were working or taking classes at home.

A survey of residents that Ottawa County conducted earlier this year confirmed that more than one in 10 people lack access to high-speed internet service. More than a quarter of survey respondents said their present service performed at speeds below the Federal Communications Commission’s standards for broadband.

With online learning and more people working from home permanently, reliable and affordable broadband service has become “really a utility that’s just as necessary as water and sewer and electricity these days,” Shay said. 

Business stabilization focus

Ottawa County commissioners hired outside managers in three of the categories, or “buckets,” to help identify, vet and recommend potential projects to fund in broadband expansion, social and human services, and what’s been labeled as “business stabilization.”

Economic development organization Lakeshore Advantage Corp. will manage what’s been labeled “business stabilization” for “businesses large and small hurt by the pandemic,” according to criteria.

Funds for projects within the business stabilization category could go to skilled trades development and training, or to support talent recruitment to Ottawa County, Shay said. Other uses such as broadband extension, affordable housing and public transportation cross over into the business stabilization bucket, he said.

Through the category, the county wants to “help businesses retain and attract employees and continue to thrive here,” Shay said.

Mandy Cooper, vice president for strategic initiatives at Lakeshore Advantage, said the ARPA money provides an opportunity to “shore up our local economy here in Ottawa County and position it for long-term success.”

Lakeshore Advantage, which serves Ottawa and Allegan counties, will engage with partners such as chambers of commerce to “get a better idea of exactly what the pain points are and opportunities are for businesses, both the primary employers and the small employers that are so important here in our community,” Cooper said.

Talent attraction and retention has been a recurring issue for all types of business, Cooper said. ARPA funds also could go to improve support for small, economically disadvantaged businesses, she said.

“There’s so many different ways you can take the funds, but the reality is that as an economic development organization we are always looking to help our communities and our businesses overcome challenges that could limit our long-term health and vitality,” Cooper said. “We take baby steps to overcome those challenges every single day. This is going to provide a giant springboard for us to take a giant leap toward overcoming some of those challenges.”

As well, the ARPA money could help to upgrade worker skills and improve access to training and education amid the talent shortage, Cooper said as an example. Greater skills in the local workforce could translate to higher wages for workers that “would be transformational for our community and Ottawa as a whole” in the long term, she said.

“There are so many potential solutions,” Cooper said of the possible uses for the ARPA funds. “As long as we pick good solutions, it will help us leapfrog ahead in our ability to overcome some of these barriers.”

Part of the process to decide how to spend the ARPA funds includes conducting an online survey of residents through July 31 to gauge their support for the chosen priorities. As the county proceeds toward accepting project applications, commissioners want to ensure they’re focused on the right areas, Shay said.

“We do want to get a sense of: Do these categories make sense on a big scale of where we feel the problems are in the county that could maybe be mitigated by these ARPA funds?” he said. “Are we headed in the right direction with these major categories, or is there some other major category that you feel we really need to take a look at?” 

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