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La Plata County commissioners approve ARPA funding for social impact projects

$3.5 million will fund 13 projects addressing issues from food security to youths’ therapeutic intervention
La Plata County gave $800,000 to address the county’s food insecurity at a systemic level. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

La Plata County announced Oct. 28 that it will award the final $3.5 million of its American Rescue Plan Act funds to 13 different projects throughout the county.

County commissioners designated $3.5 million of the $10.9 million in total ARPA funds to address the social, health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The projects will receive grant awards from $25,000 to $800,000.

The county awarded a $60,000 contract to the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado to review the proposals and make the designations. The foundation began its review in early July and submitted a recommendation to commissioners within about three weeks time. Roughly 60 proposals were submitted to the county, however not all of them were submitted by a qualifying nonprofit. The Community Foundation received about 15 proposals to review.

“There was a lot of reading and highlighting and pulling things together,” said Community Foundation Executive Director Briggen Wrinkle. “And then we talked to every single organization that was given to us by the county and said, ‘Is this a viable project? Can you really do this?’”

Commissioner Matt Salka said the awards all went toward funding long-term projects that already exist but are looking to expand. The funding helps ensure their reach extends beyond just the current generation. He called the opportunity to provide this level of funding “once in a lifetime.”

“The county’s purpose was to make generational, legacy-type change,” Wrinkle said. “You can’t do that if you ask for $100,000 and I give you $5,000. The team at the Community Foundation was very strategic to give almost 100% anywhere we could.”

Salka said the money was going toward addressing some of the most discussed issues facing constituents including food insecurity, families experiencing homelessness, mental health support, libraries and education.

Among the projects he is most excited about are the expansion of library services to rural areas, continued growth of food security outreach services offered by Pine River Shares, and the new water fill station the La Plata West Water Authority will install on the county’s Dry Side.

“Currently as it sits, the closest is Durango,” Salka said of the station. “Now they don’t have to go far if they want to fill up a water container to bring water to their homes.”

The largest award went to a coalition of organizations that each submitted proposals to address the county’s food security needs. In an effort to encourage collaboration and stretch each dollar, Wrinkle said the foundation chose to award $800,000 to the cause but did not specify how much money each organization would receive.

Rachel Landis, director of the Good Food Collective, said organizations addressing food security have unified under the La Plata Food Equity Coalition and hired a facilitator. The coalition is in the process of resubmitting a collective proposal for its projects, which will be done by early December.

“I’m a big believer that synergies only come to bear when you’re all in the same room,” Wrinkle said. “I wanted those guys to build the relationship, see how they could work together, see how they could maximize efforts and dollars, instead of me just dolling out money for a siloed project here, here and here. I think the community will benefit so much more from having these partners work together.”

American Rescue Plan Act funding in La Plata County
OrganizationFunds awarded
Food security proposals (including Manna, La Plata Family Centers Coalition, Old Fort, Good Food Collective, Durango Food Bank)$800,000
La Plata Youth Services$625,000
Pine River Shares$390,000
Southwest Conservation Corps (w/ Great Old Broads, La Plata Open Space Conservancy, Mountain Studies Institute, San Juan Mountains Association)$350,000
United Way$350,000
Resilient Colorado $300,000
Ignacio Community Library$190,000
La Plata Food Equity Coalition$115,000
La Plata West Water Authority100,000
Housing Solutions of the Southwest$55,000
Oak Tree Youth Resources$40,000
La Plata County Collaborative Management$25,000
Local First Foundation$25,000

    The La Plata Food Equity Coalition will address food insecurity from a systemic level, Landis said.

    “It’s all systems-based,” she said. “We’re not looking to shove fingers in the dam even though we realize there is a crisis of hunger right now. That crisis is going to continue unless we can really change some of the back end on this.”

    The coalition’s approach will span multiple elements of the food system, from social stigma surrounding food insecurity among youths and supporting local healthy food production, to developing infrastructure to improve food processing and upgrade the food bank’s distribution capabilities.

    Landis said that while the $800,000 is a welcomed resource, the entire plan is expected to cost $2.62 million. According to Feeding America’s “map the gap” tool, it would take an annual investment of $3.5 million to eradicate food insecurity in the county.

    Pine River Shares plans to use the $390,000 it will receive to invest in the Farm to Fork program, which works with Pine River Valley residents to grow, harvest and store healthy foods.

    “It’s a multidimensional plan because the food system has many stages in it, so we’ve been rapidly working in this direction for a long time,” said Pine River Shares Executive Director Pam Wilhoite. “This gives us a big boost on some of the infrastructure like tractors and grow domes for every community. Those are expensive. We put one in here on our campus last summer – that’s a $30,000 structure and then it allows us to produce food year-round that we share out with the community.”

    Jason St. Mary, executive director of La Plata Youth Services, said the organization intends to stretch the $625,000 grant over the next three years to fund the Hub Therapeutic Program, which serves youths who do not thrive in a typical school setting.

    La Plata Youth Services addresses the needs of youths in the community facing trouble at home, in school or with the law. Hub provides free therapeutic interventions for students struggling in school, socio-emotional skill-building support, and structured community-based extra curricular activities such as martial arts and music lessons.

    The three-year-old program is run in partnership with the 9-R school district, La Plata County Human Services as well as the Colorado State Attorney General’s Office.

    “My intention is to budget those funds across three years really to provide sustainability for the Hub,” St. Mary said.

    The program serves roughly 100 students.

    “Low (student-to-adult) ratios is our saving grace so we can provide that individualized attention and support to youths that have substantial needs,” St. Mary said, emphasizing the quality of care rather than the quantity of students served.

    Including many in-kind donations of unpaid labor, St. Mary estimates the program’s annual budget to be $1.5 million to $2 million, meaning the ARPA award makes a significant impact on the program’s financial well-being.

    Three projects will receive funding before the end of the year: the La Plata West Water Authority fill station, the La Plata County Collaborative Management’s project to help stabilize families formerly camping at Purple Cliffs and the Local First Foundation to encourage health insurance literacy. The remainder of the funds will be distributed in early 2023.

    “This $3.5 (million) will do a lot of good and benefit us locally and in La Plata County,” Salka said.

    rschafir@durangoherald.com

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