Vision 2019 | Grant writers share key role in funding projects, revitalization efforts

John Dubnansky, Cambria County grants facilitator, speaks during an interview at his office on Jan. 14, 2019.

More than $60 million in grant funding has been brought into Johnstown – from state, federal and private sources – since 2016.

The money has been used to teach children, install sewer lines, develop urban connectivity, upgrade the historic train station, assess brownfields, develop jobs and enhance the city in other economic, educational and cultural ways.

Many of the projects would not get done if organizations could only rely on the tax base of about 20,000 residents who live in a city – with an aging infrastructure and population – where three times the amount of people once lived.

“Grant funding is essential to any municipality,” Cambria County grants facilitator John Dubnansky said. 

“Once again, every municipality, particularly the city of Johnstown, has been losing population over the last several decades.

“As the population decreases, your tax revenue decreases. You need to find ways to generate revenue elsewhere, and grants is one of those options.”

Some projects are large-scale.

• The city itself has acquired in excess of $20 million for work that is being done to make sure Johnstown’s sewer system comes into compliance with a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection water-quality mandate.

• In late 2018, Gautier Steel – in a collaborative effort with the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority, Discover Downtown Johnstown Partnership and Bottle Works – was awarded $500,000 in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funding for the Iron to Arts Corridor, a proposed 2-mile trail that will pass through Conemaugh, downtown, Prospect, Minersville and Cambria City. The corridor will tie together historic structures and areas, including the Center for Metal Arts, Peoples Natural Gas Park and Johnstown Flood Museum.

• Around the same time, the Cambria County Drug Coalition received $625,000 – to be spread out over five years, with much of it being used right in the city – through the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Drug-Free Communities Support Program.

Others are small.

• Johnstown Concert Ballet got $6,000 to make a small park – with greenspace, benches and lighting – next to its property on Broad Street.

• In 2016, the Greater Johnstown School District and other organizations received a $4,000 state grant for creating early learning pathways.

But all awards – regardless of size – can bolster the community in some way, those in the field said.

“Grants, in general, are just another alternative funding stream to expand existing services, implement new services in order to help address your critical community needs,” said Travis Hutzell, who helps numerous organizations put together their proposals through his role as a grant writer for the United Way of the Laurel Highlands. 

Collaboration and vision

Teamwork is a key to success when working to acquire grants, Hutzell said.

If multiple organizations in a city apply for the same money, the awarder might see that as a sign that focus or communication is lacking.

“They want to see collaboration,” Hutzell said. “Probably the worst thing – if you would apply as a county – is if you would have six competing applications for one grant.”

But, if several groups offer their support to one proposal, then that can be seen as an indication that a community is united behind a single vision.

“By kind of working together, it gives us better access to grants because the state looks at cooperation,” Johnstown Mayor Frank Janakovic said. “Collectively, how are you doing this? Is the thing shovel-ready? How are you going to utilize this so it benefits more than one group or organization? How it benefits the region, the city (is critical to demonstrate).

“So, by working together, it helps us to procure more grants and more funding through those grants.”

Being able to explain why the money is needed and how it will be used is also critical.

“Whenever you go after funding, you have to have a clear, concise message that is easily articulated to whoever you’re meeting with,” Jackie Kulback, Gautier Steel’s chief financial officer, said. “You’ve only got – what? – 30 seconds to get their attention, so you’ve got to let them know what you’re doing, why it’s important and how it impacts the area.

“If you can get that across in an elevator speech of 30 seconds, you’ve got a shot at it.” 

Data and goals

Hutzell and Dubnansky, along with other grant writers, including Aspire Grant & Development President Michele Beener and Goodwill of the Southern Alleghenies’ Richard Lobb, help applicants shape the messages they present to the state and federal government, or philanthropic groups.

“The key thing on grant applications is making sure whatever you present back to the funder that it’s a high-quality application,” Dubnansky said. “You have to make sure that that application – whatever it is that you’re requesting funding for – is backed by data.

“Data is a key, essential component to any successful grant application, because it’s one thing to say that you have a problem. It’s another thing to show data to support that problem and then to be able to show goals, what you can achieve and what could be done to do something about that problem.”

Once awarded, the funding must be used for the specific purpose for which it was given. The money cannot simply be placed into a general fund for an organization’s other projects.

“Every grant program has a specific program guidance,” Dubnansky said. 

“That program guidance is essentially a contract. It tells you exactly how you can spend those funds.”

The reward for the grant writers is seeing projects they assisted come to fruition.

“That’s why we’re in the business that we’re in,” Hutzell said. “We’re not here to look for a pat on the back or congratulations. That’s, I guess, our higher calling, our moral and ethical obligation to the community at large.”

Receiving funding also shows the awarder trusts the organizations to properly carry out a project, said Shelley Johansson, director of marketing and communications for Johnstown Area Heritage Association, which received almost $900,000 in grants for the train station project.

“Grant-making organizations do not give that money without a really well-reasoned and thorough explanation and plan for how the money is going to be used,” Johansson said. 

“That we are getting this grant money is a vote of confidence, that people see what we see, that there is all this opportunity and potential and that these grant-making organizations want to help us make it happen.” 

Role of elected officials

State and federal legislators often play important roles in the grant application process.

Then-U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, from the former 12th Congressional District, and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey worked together with local leaders from the Johnstown Police Department, United Way of the Laurel Highlands, Cambria County Office of District Attorney, Cambria Regional Chamber, and Cambria County Drug and Alcohol Program to make the case for the county receiving grant funding for the Cambria County Drug Coalition last year.

State Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Richland Township, former state Rep. Bryan Barbin and former state Sen. John Wozniak all worked to help bring grant funding to the city in recent years.

“I was sent to Harrisburg to be an advocate for this region,” Langerholc said. “I pride myself on that, being able to ensure that the city gets its appropriate seat at the table. While this money that’s being allocated – the state money – is excellent for services and different programs to help the city, I’m cognizant that it’s hopefully to help stimulate economic growth and stimulate businesses looking to relocate and make it more attractive for businesses to invest.

“We must be careful not to become dependent on state money. But the money that’s allocated here can really help.”

While not wanting to rely on grants, organizations that seek funding that comes from state and federal tax dollars understand the need to make sure the city tries to get its share of the money available.

“Grant money is very important in our community,” said Melissa Radovanic, president of Discover Downtown Johnstown Partnership. “And the reality is that grant money can go anywhere. If it doesn’t come to Johnstown, if it doesn’t come to Cambria County, it will go somewhere else in the state of Pennsylvania. And that’s why we have to go after every grant possibility that we can.”

More competition

Grant money can “give life or seed money to spur the entrepreneurs of the region to invest in the city,” as Langerholc explained.

For example, in 2016, Gautier received $2 million in state Rural Community Assistance Partnership – or RCAP – funding for construction of a plate mill to be used for the production of titanium for U.S. Department of Defense work and other markets.

That was one of numerous projects in which Johnstown Area Regional Industries – a nonprofit economic development organization – has assisted in its four decades of existence. JARI President and CEO Linda Thomson said her organization and others now find themselves in competitive situations when trying to acquire grant funds from a tighter pool of money than existed in the past.

“I can tell you that grants were widely available through HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) and other community-development programming through the ’70s and ’80s and into the ’90s,” Thomson said. “There has been a real shortage of economic development grant funding over the last probably 10 to 15 years. Grants have pretty much shrunk over the course of time. And so it makes them way more competitive and you better have a good project when you’re out fighting for your share.”

The goal is to use the funding available for economic development and quality-of-life projects to create a more prosperous and inviting city for residents, businesses and visitors.

“Through the projects that are grant-funded, the hopes are for an increase in a base,” said Melissa Komar, executive director of Johnstown Redevelopment Authority. “All that the grant funding brings to the table is just the beginning of the project itself. Ultimately, every project should increase the tax base and make people want to live, work and play here.”

‘Make the pitch’

The organization 24/7 Wall St. has named Johnstown – where one-third of the population lives in poverty – the poorest city in the commonwealth. 

City leaders have not found a way to exit the state’s Act 47 program for distressed municipalities since entering in 1992. Unemployment is almost always above the state and national levels.

A brain drain has been occurring for decades, resulting in ideas, tax dollars and future generations leaving the community.

Cambria County has ranked in the top three, according to multiple studies, for overdose deaths per capita, among Pennsylvania counties, in recent years. About 7.5 homicides per year, on average, have occurred in the county – mostly in Johnstown – since 2011.

There are approximately 1,000 blighted properties pockmarking neighborhoods.

All of those factors have been a drag on the region for a long time.

“In regard to the negative things here within the city, as far as our poverty levels, and our crime levels and drug overdoses, in the world of grants, you can almost flip that into a positive,” Dubnansky said. “It’s a negative thing within our community, yes. But, when you talk about funders who have money, they have money to help fix problems. And what those are are all problems.

“So there we have data and these issues that have been well documented that we can take back and put back into grant applications and show that and say, ‘Hey, if you’re going to give money out to the folks within the state of Pennsylvania, give it to us.’ ”

Showing that need is “one of the primary components to a grant application,” Hutzell said.

“You need to demonstrate to them why we should fund your area, your program, your target population over the other counties and areas and target populations across the commonwealth,” Hutzell said. “You have to make a pitch.

“It’s kind of hard that you have to put your community in that negative light. But, in order to demonstrate that need, you have to. We’re being realistic. We have our issues in this area, but we’re at least coming together and working collaboratively now a lot more than we have in at least five years.” 

Impact on education

Those negative issues within the city are “an important piece of the story” when the Greater Johnstown School District applies for grant funding, according to Superintendent Amy Arcurio.

The school district received approximately $15 million in grants, mostly through the Pennsylvania Department of Education, from 2016 through 2018.

Money has been acquired for school resource officers, after-school activities, counseling, pre-K programs, safety equipment, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programming and staffing, which has allowed the district to use money from its general fund for other purposes.

“In a lot of ways, we would be forced to make those really difficult decisions – do we want to hire another kindergarten teacher because our numbers are greater or do we want to hire a school resource officer?,” Arcurio said. 

“When we’re able to write for a grant and receive the grant, we don’t have to make those difficult decisions.”

Funds have been obtained due, in large part, to the efforts of Justin Zahorchak, the district’s grant writer.

“The grants that we receive are extremely important to give us opportunity to provide much-needed programs beyond what our general fund can produce,” Arcurio said.

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

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