Cash-strapped Michigan counties turn to Whitmer administration to reel in federal funds

federal funds

By Kyle Kaminski

June 6, 2024

Billions of dollars in federal infrastructure grants are up for grabs through President Joe Biden’s administration. And state officials are fighting to ensure they land in Michigan.

MICHIGAN—Legislation signed by President Joe Biden—including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act—have unleashed billions of dollars in federal grant funding to support road repairs and make other critical infrastructure improvements across the country.

And this year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration is still fighting to ensure Michigan is able to reel in more than its fair share of federal support—especially for the state’s smaller and more rural communities with limited resources that have struggled to compete for federal assistance.

“Every community deserves safe roads and bridges, robust transit connectivity, and resilient infrastructure,” said Zachary Kolodin, director of the Michigan Infrastructure Office. “It’s imperative that Michigan communities take advantage of this opportunity to apply for billions of dollars in funding that have the ability to drastically improve quality of life, make our infrastructure assets safer, and usher in a sustainable and equitable future for all Michiganders.”

Here’s the deal:

In 2022, Whitmer formed the Michigan Infrastructure Office and hired Chief Infrastructure Officer Zach Kolodin as its director for what essentially amounted to one main job: Bring in as much federal funding to Michigan as possible, and then use it to fix the (damn) roads—and more.

Because much of the funding included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is only available through competitive grants, Kolodin and his team formed the Michigan Technical Assistance Center (TAC) as a way to recognize that some communities—particularly smaller cities and rural counties—need some extra support to get their projects over the finish line, he told The ‘Gander.

And over the last two years, the TAC has helped more than two dozen communities across Michigan apply for federal funding that may have otherwise been left on the table, officials said.

“From revamping road safety to modernizing public transit and embracing electric vehicles, these funds hold the key to bolstering our state’s infrastructure resilience,” Kris Brady, director of the Technical Assistance Center, said in a statement announcing the recent progress.

So far, 25 local cities, counties, or townships have received assistance from the TAC—mostly to apply for grants that have yet to be approved. But local and state officials told The ‘Gander they expect to hear back this year, with hopes to bring millions of federal dollars into Michigan.

From there, the funds will be used to repair bridges and roads, spruce up trails and downtown corridors, expand electric vehicle charging access, improve drinking water systems, and more. And with the federal support, local governments won’t be on the hook for shouldering the costs.

“Through our technical assistance, we’re not just facilitating grant applications; we’re igniting a movement toward sustainable development, enriching the lives of every Michigander and improving our infrastructure for future generations,” Brady said in a statement this month.

According to data from Progress Michigan, more than $54 billion in public and private investment has been announced or moved forward in Michigan since the passage of Biden’s signature legislation like the American Rescue Plan Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the CHIPS and Science Act. But according to state officials, their work to slice off a larger wedge of the federal pie for Michigan is still far from finished.

The Technical Assistance Center recently closed its third application window for local communities that need assistance securing federal funds for infrastructure projects. Additional opportunities for state assistance are also set to become available over the coming months.

Reaching New Muskegon Heights

Cathy Brubaker-Clarke is a grants and program manager at Greater Muskegon Economic Development—a countywide economic development agency dedicated to supporting local business, primarily by leveraging public and private investment to create new job opportunities.

In recent years, the group has been hyper-focused on Muskegon Heights, a city of about 9,900 residents just south of the city of Muskegon, which has struggled with high rates of poverty and an overall lack of business investment over the last several decades, Brubaker-Clarke said.

“In its heyday, Muskegon Heights was very successful. But then, with the effects of racism and disinvestment and people and companies moving out, that’s where we are today,” she said.

Over the last two years, Brubaker-Clarke said efforts to revitalize the city’s economy have centered largely on a streetscape improvement project downtown, which aims to return Muskegon Heights back to its former glory as a bustling shopping and dining destination.

Last year, state lawmakers approved a $6 million grant in the state budget to put toward those downtown revitalization efforts—namely to fund various structural fixes along Broadway Avenue, as well as make improvements to Peck Street and Rowan Park. And with some help from the state’s Technical Assistance Center, Brubaker-Clarke hopes to finally get the project in motion.

In February, Greater Muskegon Economic Development worked with city officials and staff at the state’s new Technical Assistance Center to apply for $7.3 million in federal grant funding from the US Department of Transportation to help support the project.

Officials won’t know whether the city is picked to receive the federal funds until later this year. But without the state assistance, the application wouldn’t have been sent, Brubaker-Clarke said.

“Because they’re a small city, they don’t have a lot of staff,” Brubaker-Clarke said. “They also have some of the highest numbers in terms of poverty, and a history of disinvestment and racism. So, it’s very important for us to work together on this, because we’re all in this together.”

Muskegon Heights is a relatively young and low-income community with a median age of just 31 and an average household income of $34,300, according to US Census data. And while the city’s unemployment rate has dropped over the last decade, its residents are still facing “significant economic challenges” compounded by disinvestment, Brubaker-Clarke explained.

“This will include a protected bike lane, pedestrian lighting, furniture, and all kinds of things. I think it’s really going to make a difference for Muskegon Heights,” she said. “They just don’t have the funding to handle this project on their own. And of course, that makes a difference to residents, but it’s also a big deal for attracting businesses and manufacturers to the city.”

A report commissioned by the city last year also found that Muskegon Heights faces a negative reputation among residents and within the media, as well as “no-growth attitudes” from local residents and a perception that local government leaders aren’t helping to alleviate the situation.

That’s evidenced, in part, by several vacant commercial properties, outdated manufacturing facilities, inadequate access to education and healthcare services, and shoddy local infrastructure—problems only exacerbated by limited resources to drive economic development.

Locking down opportunities to boost economic development—especially for smaller cities like Muskegon Heights—can help change the trajectory of their local economy for the next 50 years, Brubaker-Clarke said. So, for her, the extra attention in Muskegon Heights is a “huge deal.”

“Broadway goes all the way through the city, and it’s in really bad shape,” Brubaker-Clarke said.

City officials hope to hear back about the grant this summer, and with any luck, Muskegon Heights could receive enough funding to complete the project within the next couple years.

Paving the Way in Menominee

Darrell Cass is the chief engineer and manager of the Menominee County Road Commission.

It’s a job that most Michigan counties have since spliced into two separate positions due to the increasingly complex nature of managing dozens of employees, as well as overseeing the structural integrity of hundreds of miles of roads and bridges. But in smaller, rural areas like Menominee County, funding for road repairs can be tight—and it’s Cass’ duty to be frugal.

“It’s challenging. It definitely keeps me on my toes,” Cass told The ‘Gander.

Earlier this year, after receiving some help from the Technical Assistance Center, the Commission applied for more than $4 million in federal funding to reconstruct a crucial, nine-mile corridor that connects the Upper Peninsula villages of Faithorn and Hermansville.

Cass said he hopes to hear a decision on the grant funding later this fall. But without the state’s Technical Assistance Team help, they would’ve never even asked for the federal grant support.

“It’s basically a three-man show on the engineering side of things,” Cass said. “We’ve got a lot to cover, so when we find opportunities like the Technical Assistance Center, it’s like ‘holy cow.’ After going through the process, I don’t think we could’ve been able to do this on our own.”

The road reconstruction project aims to help connect two “very remote” areas of the county—which Cass expects will be a boon to logging and timber in the Upper Peninsula. Road commission officials expect they’ll find out whether the grant has been approved by November.

“The pavement is fatigued and falling apart. We know the condition. We just don’t have the funding to ever be able to upgrade that road to what it needs to be without help,” he said.

READ MORE: Meet the man cashing Michigan’s billion-dollar ticket to fix the damn state

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Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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