Localities across the country are now all too familiar with the refrain: a lot of money has been made available by the federal government, but getting your hands on it – and putting it to good use locally – is akin to navigating a maze in the dark. In our recent work tracking and analyzing hundreds of federal funding opportunities, we’ve gained a unique look into this maze and how cities are making the most of the moment. In this newsletter, we highlight our new Funding Tracker Tool (developed by Florian Schalliol) and 5 tips for localities to seize the moment.
With funding from CARES and ARPA well along, the focus is now shifting towards the release of funding opportunities from the following packages:
- The $1.2T Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA, or the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law), which provides funding primarily through block grants and competitive programs to cities, public authorities, universities, and other civic actors.
- The $437B Inflation Reduction Act, which primarily funds energy producers, manufacturers, developers, and homeowners, and consumers via tax incentives.
- The $280B CHIPS and Science Act, which extensively funds semiconductor manufacturers through direct subsidies.
In our work with local leaders across the country, we heard two questions over and over: “What money is coming and how do we get it?” Our response was to create a simple Infrastructure (+IRA) Funding Tracker.
The premise was simple: each time the federal government makes a new funding opportunity available for IJJA, IRA, or CHIPS, you’ll receive a notification. The notification is short and to-the-point: instead of long documents from Grants.gov, our tracker tries to cut to the chase. It highlights the information that local leaders need to know in about 2 pages, such as: a) how much funding is available; b) and what type of funding it is (competitive grant, formula grant, low-interest loan, etc.), c) who is eligible to apply, d) what the funding can be used for, e) what the deadline is, and f) where to get more information and, in some circumstances, apply. The Tracker is free – users can sign up here.
Here is an example:
To date, over 500 individuals have signed up for the Infrastructure (+IRA) Funding Tracker. In a recent survey of users, 80% reported using the tracker to find funding opportunities for their organizations or partners, with 40% taking immediate action upon receiving notifications. Since creating the Tracker, we’ve also learned several lessons about how localities can and are navigating this new landscape of federal funding.
#1: (Re-)convene your city network.
The slate of new federal funding opportunities are available to a wide array of applicants, including but not limited to state and local governments, public authorities, metropolitan planning organizations, universities, building owners, developers, manufacturers and energy providers. For a city to capture these funds and make sure they are aligned towards cohesive local goals requires an intentional collaboration that isn’t part of the usual grant application process. Individual organizations need to check their applications with local peers to ensure that their applications are “rowing in the same direction.” For example, a university applying for a grant under DOE from the Infrastructure Law may want to confirm that the research would contribute to growth in an industry prioritized by the business or political community. As a result, local entities must work not as independent applicants but together as co-planners. Each party will have its own unique knowledge into funding guidelines, eligible local projects, useful ways or places to spread the word, and other tips and tricks, but together the multiple funding opportunities can add up to something cohesive.
In these networks, it is especially important to ensure that they represent and reach the many corners of a diverse metro. Many of the tax incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act, for example, receive added value if they are available to low-income residents, communities, or homeowners. A network like this – whether a formal committee or body or simply a series of conversations among local partners – makes real the city’s natural advantage in decentralizing learning and action, to the tune of (hopefully) millions and millions in new federal funds.
#2: Meet to decide, not to discuss.
Leveraging a local network is necessary to increase a locality’s share of funding, but it is not sufficient. Every professional has slogged through too many meetings pitched to “partner” or “collaborate.” When time and talent are at an especially high premium, ensuring a streamlined process among a city’s network is critical. In Rochester, New York, for example, an Advisory Committee of 30+ local stakeholders from the public, private, and civic space were convened to allocate nearly $80M in funding from a combination of state and philanthropic sources. Rochester, like many US cities, has created many plans for many projects and initiatives. In the last three years alone, Rochester had created or commissioned over 1,100 pages of reports or plans.
To avoid the creation of yet another group or committee or an abstract report, leaders in Rochester made a blunt declaration to their Advisory Committee: they were here to “decide, not discuss.” As Joe Stefko, CEO of ROC2025 and the lead convener for the effort described: “It set a completely different tone for the effort. The group recognized the transformational power of these investments could only be realized by actually getting funds into the community. That meant making meetings more efficient and decision-focused. The goal is to build new muscle memory that will help us align and decide for quicker progress and greater impact on these kinds of significant community investments.” The Rochester effort is currently reviewing proposals for local projects and is on track to disburse funds this summer.
#3: Align on common targets and track progress.
Once a local network has been activated and organized, and once an efficient process has been established, it must work through the many federal funding opportunities and match them to real local projects. In Erie, PA, the City, Erie Insurance, the Erie Community Foundation, the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority, and several other groups have created a virtual “war room” of projects and funding opportunities to make full use of the moment. “Our cross-sector leadership has aligned in support of a clear set of local priorities and goals, and we are now in a much better position to identify and connect funding opportunities to those projects. In the last 6 months alone, we’ve helped these projects secure upwards of $20M for our high-priority projects that include, the revitalization of a blighted industrial facility along Erie’s 12th St. Corridor, a supersized plastics recycling plant, and the revitalization of our Presque Isle Gateway Corridor. We can now leverage those resources for additional, local, state and federal dollars,” explained Kim Thomas, Executive Director of Infinite Erie, the cross-sector initiative coordinating inclusive growth strategies.
Lesson #4: Add focus and capacity to grantwriting and project planning.
The approach described above requires a new attention – and new capacity – to grant writing and project implementation. First and foremost, it requires additional grantwriting capacity, given the influx of new opportunities. The most straightforward option is to add grantwriters on staff or contract. However, there is a national shortage of such qualified individuals given demand across the country, and many smaller municipalities may not have the budgets to support such additions. In these cases, places can use helpful tools to streamline the grant application process – like our Infrastructure Tracker. The US Digital Response also has a collaborative Grant Identification Tool that can help under-resourced communities apply for and manage federal grants. Some places may also be able to receive technical assistance for grant applications from their states or local or national nonprofits. For example, Rhode Island launched the Compete RI program, which allows municipalities to borrow grant-writing capacity from the state.
Localities must also look at increasing capacity beyond grant writing. The challenge facing cities is as much about which grants to apply for and which local projects to match these grants to. Instead of simply grant writing, localities should be thinking about project planning. This is not just a technical challenge for grant writers, but a strategic challenge for local leaders. It requires project planners who can identify and tease out all aspects of local projects (e.g., capital needs, implementation requirements, partners). Localities should increase their capacity here where they can. Networks of grant writers, project planners, and local leaders should be working collaboratively. Now is a time for the strategic and the technical to come together.
Finally, localities should consider their future grant reporting needs. As metros secure additional awards, they will likely be hit with additional grant reporting requirements. Having a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation plan (or at least enough open capacity to do this reporting) can help leaders meet reporting requirements, identify areas for improvement, and effectively communicate successes. This will help create a culture of accountability and transparency that is essential for building trust with the community and securing future funding.
#5: Don’t forget about your state.
The trillions of dollars of funds available through the federal legislation mentioned above have focused much of our attention on opportunities at the federal level. However, discerning cities will place equal emphasis on “working the state.” States, as a start, control and re-allocate many federal funds; to that end, many states have unallocated funds from the American Rescue Plan (that expire in 2024) and other federal block grants. Moreover, many states also have surpluses from recent tax collections. In contrast to many federal funding opportunities which are highly prescriptive, laden with requirements, and subject to long federal timelines, state funds can often be faster and more flexible. In many cases, federal funds will not fully fund local projects and priorities, and localities will need additional dollars – or money where “the feds won’t go.” Some cities are proactively making pitches to their states. In Pennsylvania, for example, Erie has briefed its governor on a comprehensive set of funding requests for projects that were not funded federally, including the projects in an unsuccessful Build Back Better Regional Challenge application.
In March 2023, cities across the country are facing a very different challenge than they did three years ago at the start of the pandemic. Instead of an unknown virus, the challenge is now a known (but intricate) maze of funding opportunities. Instead of lockdowns and other public measures, this challenge is unfolding in multiple entities across multiple sectors. But it would be wrong to assume that it is a lesser challenge. Cities still must act quickly and with purpose; they must organize and challenge themselves with the details and intricacies of funding opportunities to seize the moment. The economic foundation of their community is literally at stake.
Bruce Katz is the Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University. Florian Schalliol is the Founder of Metis Impact, a public and social sector consulting firm. Milena Dovali Delgado is a Research Officer at the Nowak Lab.