WA makes it easier for rural towns and tribes to build parks
Grant-matching requirements made it tough for underserved communities to fund conservation and recreational projects. But now the state has joined forces with small towns and tribes to fix that.
Twisp, a town in north-central Washington with a population just under a thousand, has endured outsized strain of late: Nearby wildfires the last few summers have caused millions of dollars in damage. Three firefighters died fighting the town’s namesake blaze in 2015.
As its mayor, Soo Ing-Moody, guided the town through the fires’ aftermath, she realized the financial burden her town already faced made it difficult to focus on anything but the essentials.
“Amenities go to the back of our mind,” Ing-Moody says. “And it costs the same to build a soccer field and baseball diamond regardless of where you live — it’s not any cheaper because you're building in a rural area.”
Even so, the town has needed a new playfield for years. The one that exists really can be used only for practice, and kids in team sports often travel to other towns for games because Twisp can't play host. The issue piles up on itself: With a small budget (Twisp's general fund is just over $1 million a year), communities like Twisp can’t afford to fund recreational projects. They depend entirely on outside funding, including grants from the Washington Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) to make those projects happen. Even then, many can’t afford the 50 percent match historically required to apply for an RCO grant.
But a 2015 assessment in response to the Legislature’s requirement that it address equitable access to grant funds helped the RCO realize Twisp’s problem was widespread throughout Washington: Low-income communities simply didn’t have the same access to grant funding that more populous, moneyed counties did. Ing-Moody and a handful of other representatives from small Washington towns joined a committee formed by the RCO to address the issue. With their help and a Washington State University study, the RCO created new criteria for defining underserved or underrepresented communities and decided to offer grants on a sliding scale based on need rather than the standard 50 percent match.
Last year was the first in which communities like Twisp could apply for reduced match funding. At a Feb. 27 presentation for Gov. Jay Inslee, the RCO presented the impacts the program has had since its creation and showcased an interactive map that identifies which Washington communities are considered underrepresented by their new criteria.
“We saw some small counties and cities that had never applied before apply [since the reduction],” says RCO Director Kaleen Cottingham, who noted an increase in tribal applicants as well. Funds aren’t guaranteed until approved by the Legislature this session, but Cottingham noted that all projects were approved last year.
For the first time last year, Henry Hix, chief of natural resource enforcement with the Colville Tribes Parks and Recreation Department, applied to upgrade the tribe’s only on-reservation park with running water. Opened in 1946, Keller Community Park hasn’t seen any upgrades since its creation. Hix describes it as “primitive” and now, after successfully applying for reduced-match grant funding that brought their responsibility down to 10 percent of the project’s overall cost, says that renovations will “take it into the 21st century.”
“A lot of times, money’s tight,” Hix says. The change, he adds, “made it easier to contact tribal council to ask for match money.”
With the grant, Hix says they’ll finally be able to build a new restroom and showers, repair roadways and install security lighting. “It makes a big difference in these small, rural communities,” he says.
Just north of Keller Community Park in Ferry County lies a rail-to-trail project that has struggled to finance its completion. In the works for a decade, the project would have been completed earlier if there had been easier access to funding, say Ferry County Rail Trail Partners President Bob Whittaker and Keith Bell, the trail’s project manager. With high unemployment rates and a median household income 40 percent below the state average, Ferry County had its required match lowered to 10 percent. It had won grants before, but a recent Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program grant will finally complete the Ferry County Rail Trail.
“We have no parks department,” Whittaker says. “We can barely keep the lights on in our courthouse and roads open. The community really came together through auctions [and] donations to make this happen.”
RCO policy specialist Adam Cole says a survey of other state policies couldn’t find any others offering grants this way, though some cities like San Francisco have enacted similar measures to create criteria to help award parks and recreational grants to areas underrepresented or in need. Match reductions are available on a state level for rural hospital development grants, for example, but not parks and recreation, Cole says.
Ing-Moody calls the improvements “long overdue,” and she’s grateful to have taken a part in improving the grant-funding process. After all, with the grant Twisp has now applied for, they’d be able to create an entirely new playfield.
“If we’re going to have a grant out there or some sort of assistance in order to keep these amenities that really have such an impact on a local level, they should be accessible for all,” Ing-Moody says.