Usually, when the Guilford County Board of Commissioners spends money, it’s doling out taxpayer funds. However, at a Wednesday, Sept. 21 work session, the board, for a change, got to have some say over how other people’s money gets spent.
Specifically, the Guilford County commissioners had the job of deciding which of 10 competing proposals would get moved up the ladder and passed along to the Golden LEAF Foundation. The lucky projects that gained commissioner approval have a potential of receiving up to $1.5 million in grant funding that’s available for Guilford County projects.
The State of North Carolina created the Golden LEAF Foundation in 1999 to administer recurring funds the state receives in a legal settlement with cigarette manufacturers. The foundation is charged with promoting the “economic well being of North Carolinians,” and its initiatives are designed to “strengthen the state’s economy through diverse grants-making.”
In this latest funding round – the Community Based Grantsmaking Initiative – the Golden LEAF Foundation has budgeted $20 million to award local governments and nonprofit organizations that promote economic advancement with the best project proposals. The $20 million will be split among grant winners in counties in central and southwest North Carolina. The money will go toward the strongest projects with a limit of up to $1.5 million per county. Each eligible county is able to submit between one to three projects, and the grants require a 20 percent cash match by the agency that receives those funds.
At the start of the Sept. 21 meeting, Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing told the board, “There are 30 counties competing, with $20 million, so the money will be given out based on the strength of the projects. So, the stronger the projects, the better. Some counties will probably get 1.5; some will get less.”
“They are trying to allocate it on merit,” Lawing reiterated. “They are not worried about what county will get it.”
Some projects won’t get money – even if they have the approval of one of the vetting counties taking part in the selection process. The grants will be targeted toward investments in the “building blocks of economic development” and they are limited to projects “that address economic development, education, workforce development, infrastructure, healthcare infrastructure and agriculture.”
The work session was an unusual one since the board was helping to decide how another organization’s money might be spent. The last time the commissioners had to do something along these lines was about seven years ago when the board was asked to prioritize projects based on beneficial loans that were made available at that time through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the stimulus package.
At the Sept. 21 meeting, the commissioners approved two proposals, both of which had to do with workforce development. The Board of Commissioners gave its stamp of approval to a proposal from the Guilford County Schools called “Workforce of the Future” that would train new teachers, as well as to a proposal from Guilford County Technical Community College (GTCC) designed to increase the capacity for that school’s coming Center for Advanced Manufacturing. It’s interesting that both of the chosen projects were brought to the board by entities that the commissioners fund each year – the schools and GTCC – while the others that weren’t moved forward aren’t funded by the board.
At the meeting, GTCC President Randy Parker spoke on behalf of GTCC’s project that ultimately got approval to be passed along to the Golden LEAF board. GTCC was requesting $1 million to support expansion of the Center of Advanced Manufacturing. He said the project will be sustainable through additional revenue due to increased enrollment. A letter of support from the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce helped it win commissioner approval. That proposal had initially included a component for 3-D printing. However, the discussion at the work session revealed that some Golden LEAF board members who had been consulted weren’t convinced that that part of the proposal was desirable so that element is likely to be removed before the application is passed on. The plans can be tweaked between now and the end of the month when they must be turned in to the Golden LEAF Foundation.
The other program that got approval from the board was proposed by the Guilford County Schools.
“The schools requested $1,057,116 and 19 cents, which was interesting,” Lawing said, referring to the schools’ peculiar decision not to round the requested amount off. (There may be a grant-writing class somewhere that tells students that using a highly specific number makes it appear as though you know exactly what you’re doing.)
The school’s plan is designed to increase advanced manufacturing, health care and alternative energy sectors in Guilford County by promoting education in the areas of science, technology and math.
Among the proposals that the commissioners did not approve – and that will therefore not see any of Golden LEAF money from the process – were proposals by the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, Elon University School of Law, a joint proposal from Bennett College and NC A&T State University, as well as ones from East Market Street Development Corp. and the Southwest Renewal Foundation of High Point.
Say Yes to Education also applied but later withdrew its application. Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips asked why Say Yes had pulled out, but Lawing’s response was highly cryptic. There was some speculation after the meeting that Say Yes didn’t want to be in the position of competing with the Guilford County school system for grant money.
Some proposals the county passed over simply didn’t seem to meet the requirements of the Golden LEAF Foundation and therefore had a higher chance of being rejected if the commissioners had passed them on. Elon’s School of Law was requesting $520,000 to expand free legal services to increase new business opportunities in economically distressed areas. The Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship endorsed that project, but commissioners and county staff didn’t feel the proposal was right for these grants.
All projects got a consideration by the board, though some of the applications were turned into the county after the Tuesday, Sept. 6 deadline that the county had established. At the work session, John Swaine, the CEO and CFO of the sit-in museum, said he learned of the opportunity at the last minute when he was driving to New York, though the museum still managed to get its application in by the deadline.
He said the sit-in museum in Greensboro helps attract people to the downtown area and spur economic growth, and he added that the museum got tax credits in 2009 because it was in an economically distressed area – something that also matters for the purposes of these grants. The museum’s proposal, he said, was a plan to draw visitors to the museum from other areas.
There wasn’t a clear connection between that and new jobs, but Swaine said additional museum visitors was connected to employment.
“That is helping to spur local economic growth,” he said. “It is spurring job creation and maintaining jobs that exist.”
The commissioners opted to pass on that proposal.
At the meeting, Lawing said, “A lot of these ideas are not bad ideas but they just don’t fit this proposal.”
Much of the vetting of projects before the work session was done by Lawing, Deputy County Manager Clarence Grier and Guilford County Budget Director Michael Halford.
Lawing said he had been candid with those making the proposals before the work session, so, he said, the comments he was making weren’t being heard for the first time by those who had brought the proposals.
“I don’t want to embarrass anyone,” Lawing said.
“Most of these are good ideas – they just don’t fit the project,” he added.
He also said the equality of these applications “vary widely” and had different levels of detail and clarity.
Like Lawing, Phillips said rejection wasn’t an indication the project was not a good one.
“It doesn’t make any of these other requests bad or poor, or mean they don’t have value,” Phillips said.
The Board of Commissioners had planned to hold the work session a week earlier. However, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton chose to come speak in town that day and the Democratic commissioners wanted to see their chosen one, so the work session was pushed back a week.
In January and February of 2017, Golden LEAF representatives will conduct site visits for the finalists, and on Thursday, April 6, the Golden LEAF board is scheduled to make funding decisions on proposals, when only projects endorsed by the counties will receive consideration.