While working for Akron's University Park Development Corporation, Bridget Susel witnessed the difference a little bit of financing from the local government can make in a neighborhood.
In the early 2000s, Susel, who is now Kent's community development director, saw neighborhood grants improve a variety of communities surrounding the University of Akron.
One project funded trim painting for homes on a couple of blocks in a lower-income neighborhood. After those houses saw fresh paint, she said, other neighbors were motivated to do some extra work to their own properties. Another project enabled a neighborhood to organize a park cleanup, which concluded with a festival on the same grounds that drew a significant turnout.
"The funding is small, but the change is great," Susel said.
Kent is now implementing a similar program that has the same endgame: Improving the city's neighborhoods through financial support and by fostering community engagement.
The city is currently seeking applicants for its first Neighborhood Grant Program, which has $30,000 set aside for projects.
Of the $30,000 allocated, $20,000 will pay for Neighborhood Enhancement Grants (maximum $5,000 for one project), and the remaining $10,000 will be applied toward Neighborhood Engagement Grants (maximum $2,000 for one project).
The engagement grants fund projects that spur community interaction, said Dan Morganti, grants and neighborhood programs coordinator. The enhancement grants are for projects creating physical, aesthetic improvements.
All the efforts require a significant commitment from residents. Applications require signatures from several individuals affirming their interest.
"This program is targeted at neighborhood based groups interested in improving their community by undertaking projects that further a shared vision that they all have," Morganti said.
Community engagement grants could help fund the organization and distribution of newsletters, for example, help coordinate a park cleanup or even promote a youth event.
Enhancement projects are like beautification projects. They're geared toward physical measures that improve a given area and might include anything from creating a flower bed, public artwork or even small, "pocket" parks.
All of those projects are required to be done on private property, though, and not in any public right-of-ways. And each project must benefit a large area and not only a specific property or two.
Morganti said administrators will be flexible with what projects are considered. Officials don't want to get too specific with their expectations because the purpose of the program is for residents to identify and plan projects on their own.
"We're just putting some ideas out there," Morganti said. "We're excited to see what neighborhood groups are able to present to us."
The local government's role will be approving the funding and providing consultation on how to bring a project to reality.
"If the city just provides that service, there is no incentive to actually take pride in what you're doing," Susel said. "Our goal is to generate that sense of community and foster that sense of pride."
Questions about the program should be directed to Morganti at 330-678-8108 or via e-mail at MorgantiD@kent-ohio.org. Guidelines and a full application are also available online at www.kentohio.org/dep/comdev.asp.
So far, no one has submitted any applications, but the city is eagerly waiting for residents to take advantage of the program.
"I think in today's society, there's a tendency for all of us to have a disconnect from our neighbors. And, as times change, that has become even more entrenched in our neighborhoods," Susel said. "There's always an individualized sense of what I need in my area. We would love to be able to get people to have some interest in what their neighborhoods are doing and what areas and matters are of the most concern from them.
"We're really trying to bring people back together," she added. "We can facilitate these kinds of activities, but the success or failure of this is contingent upon the buy-in from the residents."
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