Rejection of a grant application from the Lorain County Community Development office isn’t stopping proponents of an upgrade for the Phillis Wheatley Community Center.
“There is no better project,” Tracie Haynes, Oberlin Underground Railroad Society executive director, told Lorain County Commissioners at their April 6 meeting. “I’m really, really asking for your support in this next round.”
The nonprofit society, which owns the center at 89 South Pleasant St., sought $88,300 in federal taxpayer Community Development Block Grant money from the county.
The money was to make the center accessible to people with disabilities.
The society purchased the former Masonic Hall in 2012 and named if after Wheatley, an 18th century slave and one of the nation’s first African-American poets.
The two-story center hosts art shows, bingo, town hall and union meetings, and private events.
“We want a new and different type of community center, one that focuses on excellence, empowerment, progress, and sustainability, ” Haynes wrote in an April 3, 2015, letter to Linda Blanchette, the county’s CDBG and Children’s Health Insurance Program administrator. “We want it to be welcoming and accessible to everyone.”
County officials said at the meeting that the upgrade was a worthy project, but there wasn’t enough money for it. “It’s a very competitive process and I know there were a lot of projects that weren’t accepted,” commissioner Matt Lundy told Haynes.
The county received about $500,000 worth of applications, but only received $314,000 in grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the grant distributor, said Donald Romancak, community development director.
The city of Oberlin received about $100,000 of last year’s money for new curbs and resurfacing for Groveland Street. It was the only other Oberlin applicant.
The rejection came at a time when CDBG funding continues to decline locally and nationally. Last year’s county allotment was nearly 18 percent less than the $382,000 the county received in 2010, which didn’t include money awarded directly to North Ridgeville from HUD.
The allotment was nearly 26 percent less than the $424,000 received in 2005. Amherst and North Ridgeville received separate awards that year.
The cuts are part of a national reduction in federal housing, health, and social service block grants over the last 30 years. Funding has been cut 63 percent since the CDBG program began in 1982, and 49 percent since 2000, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
With less money available, county administrator Jim Cordes said it would’ve helped if the society hadn’t been competing against the city of Oberlin for funding.
“I would encourage you to really work with the city so we have a clear line of sight to what Oberlin wants for its community rather than competing proposals,” he said.
Haynes said after the meeting that Carrie Handy, Oberlin planning and development director, had suggested in 2014 that the society apply to the county.
Handy, who didn’t return calls, was then Oberlin’s economic development director.
Haynes said when the society applied she was unaware the city also planned to seek money. “It created a real mess for us,” she said.
Cordes apologized for the society not being informed when a public hearing was held on funding and for not being notified of the rejection. He said communication will be improved.
Cordes recommended the society seek money from the Lorain County Solid Waste Management District. The district is responsible for solid waste disposal and recycling.
The society could be eligible for money if some of the materials used for the upgrade are from recycled materials. “Sometimes you have to go a different direction to get where you want to be,” Cordes said.
Romancak said after the meeting that the society could be eligible to receive up to $20,000 from the district.
Haynes said she will also ask city council members to help the society find money for the upgrade.
Society member Three Eagle Cloud said the improvements are needed and the rejection was frustrating. “We’re just desperate to do something for the community,” he said. “They have too many restrictions.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Evan Goodenow | Oberlin News-Tribune Tracie Haynes, Oberlin Underground Railroad Society executive director, is pictured outside the Phillis Wheatley Community Center on Monday. The society, which runs the center, is seeking money to make it accessible to people with disablities. Haynes showed where an elevator would be installed.