We’ve all heard the campaign promises and talk from Washington about boosting the economic prospects of communities like ours. No one needs to sell me on our potential, but does this new administration and Congress actually understand what places like ours really need to prosper?
Last month, I joined a coalition of 107 elected leaders from communities much like ours across the country in sending a letter to members of Congress and the White House that had a simple message: We are counting on them to be a reliable partner and support our homegrown efforts to rebuild our downtowns, restore our economies, revitalize neighborhoods, attract new, job-creating investments and improve opportunity for everyone.
We’re not looking for a handout, but our firsthand experience in Belfast shows us how federal programs and resources can make these things happen. There are a range of proven federal programs that can encourage the private sector to invest and are important to our quality of life and continued progress right here in Belfast.
But what if these federal resources were threatened?
After threats of severe cuts, the fiscal year 2018 federal budget approved by Congress and signed by the president in March maintained and even strengthened many vital federal programs that help all of us drive prosperity in our communities, including Community Development Block Grants, brownfield cleanup assistance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and economic development grants from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. I am grateful for this commitment to local revitalization and growth, and I am hopeful that Congress and the Trump administration will continue their commitment in fiscal year 2019 and beyond.
Yet, I also remain deeply concerned by plans to put this robust federal support for local communities back on the chopping block for next year and beyond.
I am keenly aware of concerns over the ballooning federal deficit; balancing budgets is something I have to do every day as mayor. But the budget should not be balanced on the backs of local communities like ours. That kind of deficit reduction strategy is penny wise, but pound foolish. Dollar for dollar, federal investments in places like Belfast generate a far greater return on investment in terms of local revitalization and job creation than any other line item in the federal budget.
Make no mistake — I’m not asking for handouts. I’m looking for a reliable federal partner to continue the progress we’ve made in eliminating blight, stabilizing neighborhoods and cleaning up contaminated industrial sites to prepare them for new development. Local communities like ours continue to meet our challenges head-on, with creative, data-driven approaches to community development.
We’re doing the hard work locally, but we still can’t do it alone.
In 2011, Belfast received a $150,000 Community Enterprise grant to construct the harbor walk, which allows residents and visitors to stroll, bike, or jog the half-mile stretch along the downtown’s beautiful coast.
Following this, in 2015, the Economic Development Administration awarded the city of Belfast and the Belfast Water District a $1.9 million grant to help reconstruct and enhance a significant section of Front Street, with the intent to facilitate economic growth in this area of Belfast’s working waterfront.
Our working waterfront has also benefited from brownfield grants. In 2016, Belfast received a $400,000 brownfield grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to continue Belfast’s Brownfields Assessment Program. The city’s program, launched in 2012, has resulted in the assessment of 19 brownfields, including ones where the assessments have been followed by environmental cleanup, such as the old Waldo County Jail, the city-owned parcel located at 45 Front St., and 12-28 Washington St.
To date, the city of Belfast has received a total of $1 million in brownfield grants. The EPA’s Brownfields Program is designed to empower states, communities and other stakeholders in economic redevelopment to work together in a timely manner to prevent, assess, safely clean up and sustainably reuse brownfields.
I’m glad to be part of a growing coalition that’s urging all of our federal leaders to focus on proven solutions to stimulate the kind of economic growth that will create vibrant, healthy communities; bring prosperity to all of our residents, families and workers; and produce the rising tide that lifts all boats in Belfast and other rural areas, small towns and mid-sized cities across the country.
Samantha Paradis is mayor of Belfast. She is a member of First & Main a bipartisan coalition of more than 100 local elected leaders representing towns, cities or counties across 33 states.
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