Northampton Cocunty: 43 towns vie for grants
Northampton County's Community Investment Partnership Program (CIPP) was just announced in January, but is going full speed ahead. Executive John Brown plans to use table games revenue from the Sands Casino for a variety of grants and revolving loans, with an emphasis on its aging boroughs and townships.
At a meeting of county council's Economic Development Committee Aug. 6, officials disclosed that 43 municipalities have already given notice that they intend to apply for $1.3 million in grants for various projects. Though these applications will be ranked by county staffers, council will have the final say on how to spend the $500,000 set aside by Brown for these grants.
Community and Economic Development (CED) Director Diane Donaher had said in January that 80 percent of the funding would be directed at what boroughs and townships "that lack access to resources. They don't have staff. They don't have funding." But in response to concerns raised by council that the cities were being ignored, Donaher reported an additional $150,000 is being added to the program for Bethlehem ($100,000) and Easton ($50,000). Those will be urban block grants. Community Development Administrator Lori Sywensky said this would "make sure cities have access to some of the resources available, but not to the detriment of the smaller communities."
In contrast to smaller communities, neither Bethlehem nor Easton will be required to match the block grants.
"Our neighborhood NIZ is stealing businesses from the area," complained Ken Kraft, referring to Allentown's controversial Neighborhood Improvement Zone, where $54 million in state tax dollars to date have been diverted for an arena and several office buildings. He said some of Bethlehem's money will fund a city position to retain local businesses.
In addition to these community grants, $100,000 has been set aside for job creation. CED staffer Mark Hartney, who explained that those grants are "based on opportunity," is currently working with four companies. Three of these are looking to expand and the fourth is an international company seeking to relocate to Northampton County. One condition of this grant is that any job created must pay at least $19.18 per hour, which is 80 percent of the Northampton County median income.
"I think it's important to attract quality jobs," Hartney said. It's unclear, however, whether any job creation grant includes a clawback provision that would enable the county to get its money back for an empty promise.
In addition to what is now $650,000 in grants, the CIPP program will include a $500,000 revolving loan fund for business gap loans. Donaher suggested council provide the county's General Purpose Authority with $500,000, and trust their "expertise and professionalism" in awarding and monitoring these loans. Two members of the county's General Purpose Authority - Mike Dowd and Neal Koplin - explained how they would administer the fund and repayment structures.
"Does council want to be reviewing 25 or 30 financial statements?" asked Dowd, himself a former council president. Though Ken Kraft called gap loans risky, Koplin indicated that there would be collateral for these loans.
After the CIPP presentation, Donaher countered criticisms that her eight-person office has failed to produce a single job, except for the ones in her own department. She indicated they are currently working with 26 businesses, including three manufacturers and a health facility.
"This is what we do every day," she said.
Donaher did come under some criticism for a $35,000 grant that Brown recently authorized for a business located in Whitehall. The money went to Restore, a nonprofit associated with the Lehigh Valley Habitat for Humanity, for the start-up costs that would enable it to recycle latex paint. Restore is located at the old Circuit City business and is mostly staffed by volunteers.
Environmental Services Coordinator Ken Zinis informed council that complaints about latex paint disposal are among the most common calls we get from our residents.
Bob Werner took issue with giving this money away without at least informing Council. "I want to make sure there's accountability," he insisted.
After determining that Lehigh County's made no contribution, Scott Parsons asked why Northampton County is funding a Lehigh County business.
Sywensky was prepared for the question, explaining Habitat for Humanity is a Valley-wide entity and that Restore is a nonprofit. "We looked at the greater regional good here."
Sywensky got a little help from Kraft.
"It's a very advantageous thing for us because we were throwing it in landfills and nobody knows what to do with it. Everybody has latex paint. ... It's a really good program and I'm 100 percent for it. Restore just happens to be the location where the paint is recycled. Hopefully, in the future, we can use that paint here, in our offices."