LOWVILLE — Federal stimulus funds have created an opportunity for counties to address some of the most looming issues and lay the ground work for growth on many levels. For Lewis County, soon there will be a plan to spend it.
The county’s legislators approved the investment of $1.5 million of the aid for a broadband expansion initiative that will be additionally funded by state and federal grants.
A special committee was formed to lead the local effort to bring high speed internet to unserved and underserved households either via fiber or wireless technology, a feat that was not accomplished under the state’s Broadband for All program.
“Utilizing data collected by the ECC and the Development Authority of the North Country, the committee will identify areas with the highest density of underserved residents and proceed with direct investments in broadband infrastructure,” according to a proposed Stimulus Initiatives Plan.
A number of other programs are in the “design phase” and will be discussed in upcoming county board meetings according to County Manager Ryan Piche.
In the largest of those programs, a proposed $1.5 million would be spent on improving recreation “community connectors” areas along the county trail system that are crucial to the system’s success as well as signage on trails, roads and bridges, better informational kiosks and maps and adding to the trails available in small communities, according to the spending plan.
Part of this effort will involve improving some of the county properties along the Black River’s Blueway Trail Plan, Mr. Piche said, as well as posting destination distance signs along the river trail.
“The purpose of this program is to better market our recreational opportunities in Lewis County, providing easier access and signage for a better experience and provide more recreational opportunities for residents and tourists alike.”
This project has a five-year implementation plan.
A project focused on “placemaking” and property clean-up, titled the Community Investment Program, could be earmarked for $1 million of the stimulus funds.
Through this project, the county hopes to create a fund to help prepare “vacant or under utilized” properties, often referred to as “zombie properties,” for development and use. “By creating a county fund specifically tailored for direct community investment, Lewis County will be able to give life to dozens of community development projects that otherwise would never move forward,” the spending plan states.
Some of the potential assistance the funds could be used for are a number of Department of Environmental Conservation studies, for instance environmental and hazardous material assessments, property re-use studies and market analysis, tank removal, tax abatement and demolition among others.
To target workforce challenges in the county, $500,000 may be used to expand the Careers Here Internship program initiated with the help of the Pratt Northam Foundation over five years.
The paid internships are available to local college and BOCES students in their area of study. With the additional $100,000 investment per year in the program, the county believes up to 35 students could participate according to information provided in the draft spending plan.
Through this program, the county hopes to “increase the likelihood of an individual turning into a long-term employee with a business and in turn result in a long-term resident of the county.”
The “Streetscapes” in villages and hamlets around the county could benefit from a $400,000 funding program called the Facade and Streetscape Improvement Program under which reimbursement grants of up to $10,000 for certain improvements to “mixed-use and commercial buildings” as well as visual elements on the streets of villages and hamlets throughout the counties would be made available.
Grant applicants would be required to match the grant amount to pay for the improvements and will have six months to complete the work.
The program “aims to revitalize the historic character and attractiveness of villages and hamlets in Lewis County through public and private investment,” the spending plan states, “These improvements will help business growth and retention, enhance tourism, increase spending in the local economy and reduce the number of blighted and vacant properties.”
A three-year, $200,000 program to increase childcare opportunities in the county could also result from the stimulus money.
The Lewis County Childcare Development Initiative is already under way with a new program through the collaboration of the county Planning Department, the Development Corporation, Jefferson Community College, the Community Action Planning Council and the Watertown Small Business Development Center to train people to open “regulated home daycare” in the hope of increasing child care opportunities.
Mr. Piche said the funds will also be used to help those who complete the course navigate the extensive state requirements and ensure they have all of the necessary tools and equipment to care for the children.
Offered as an “optional” project is the $300,000 Home Improvement Program that would help people who are “asset limited, income constrained, employed” who may be “struggling to afford the basic necessities of quality housing, food, childcare, health care and transportation” and need to make repairs or improvements to their homes.
The allowable repairs or improvements through the grants in this two-year program would include roofs, foundations, windows, siding, plumbing, heating, electrical and accessibility improvements like widening doorways, changes to bathrooms and ramps.
Routine maintenance and remodeling would generally not qualify.
“This funding will strengthen Lewis County neighborhoods and help working families protect the largest investment they will likely make in their lifetime.
On May 10, the U.S. Treasury announced states were about to receive their share of the $350 billion in federal aid from the American Rescue Plan earmarked to help state and local governments remedy some of the budget gaps and revenue shortfall created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of the $24 billion afforded New York state, $5,107,690 is for Lewis County, $21,333,967 goes to Jefferson County, $20,927,232 to St. Lawrence County and $22,749,964 to Oswego County.