The $840,000 federal grant awarded for a Rocky Fork Lake safety and blight project is on hold while county officials revise parts of the grant paperwork and wait for answers about questions that have arisen on the land bank part of the project.
Highland County Commissioner Shane Wilkin on Friday confirmed that issues have arisen that have put the project on hold. He said he was frustrated because the grant has gone through two approval processes with no problems until now.
The county has been told that the federal authorities “have to have legal look at it, and until then they can’t expend any funds,” Wilkin said.
The $844,000 Rocky Fork Lake project is designed to help the lake become “the economic engine for Highland County,” fight the “inordinate amount of crime” in parts of the lake region, and serve as a model “to be replicated in other areas,” according to the project’s site coordinator.
The project started locally as the Rocky Fork Lake Area Safety and Advancement Planning Process (RFL-ASAP). Beginning with a series of meetings starting in December 2014 and involving as many as 60 county officials, business owners and others, four major themes emerged at the lake, including crime reduction and community safety, housing and property issues, economic development and marketing, and community services.
The grant award announced October 2016 was considered a major victory for Highland County, and particularly the lake area.
While the county commissioners were the official grant applicants, LuAnn Winkle, director of the Turning Point Applied Learning Center, was the driving force behind winning the grant from the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. The grant was one of just a handful of similar grants awarded across the United States. The implementation plan for the funds was approved early this year.
As part of the grant, more than $263,000 in contracts are slated for Highland County Community Action Organization, including $197,500 to create, operate and fund a new land bank in the county, and $66,000 to expand CAO nutrition and other services to the lake region, including onsite services.
In March, commissioners approved retaining Development Strategies Group of Cincinnati to aid in the strategic planning process. The company was hired on an 18-month retainer for $3,500 per month, plus $5,000 for expenses, for a total of $68,000.
Winkle, who is serving as the site coordinator, said in February that she saw the land bank as a main component necessary to acquiring and cleaning up areas of the lake that have fallen into blight or resulted in unattractive detriments to economic growth at Rocky Fork.
At least during the two-year life of the grant, the land bank funds must be targeted only to the lake region, said Winkle. In other Ohio counties, land banks have improved local economies through efforts such as rehabilitating distressed or abandoned properties by turning them into useful sites for office space, retail centers or recreation facilities, often by partnering with local hospitals, schools or other entities for community improvement projects.
But Wilkin said Friday that officials seem to be questioning the land bank component of the grant. Also, points of contact listed on the original grant application – both a financial point of contact and a daily point of contact – were deemed unacceptable, Wilkin said, since they listed people connected with Winkle’s group instead of with the county. Wilkin said those contacts have been updated. Wilkin said he was also required to undergo additional training in connection with the grant.
Wilkin said he told federal officials he didn’t understand why the issues have arisen now.
“I told them I didn’t see why this is a problem after you’ve approved it twice,” he said.
Wilkin said at least four other projects around the country that were awarded similar grants are facing similar issues.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.