‘Boot camps’ open to help small cities compete for infrastructure grants

Billions of dollars in competitive grants will become available to local governments from last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law. Will small and medium-sized cities get their fair share?

Historically, larger cities have enjoyed advantages of possessing the know-how and staff bandwidth to apply. To level the playing field, the Local Infrastructure Hub, a national program founded this spring by numerous philanthropies and city-support organizations, is offering a series of at least 30 “boot camps” over the next two years to help officials navigate the grantmaking process and complete strong applications. The National League of Cities will lead the training.

Applications are open through August for the first round, which starts in September. Officials from municipalities of 150,000 people or smaller can apply. The $10 million supporting the technical assistance initiative is about one-fifth of the total funds the five philanthropies contributed to start the Local Infrastructure Hub. 

NLC found that many smaller communities don’t apply for federal grants due to a lack of resources. According to NLC’s announcement, the program will emphasize “helping communities understand federal priorities, such as equity and sustainability, and then incorporate them and other desired outcomes into submissions.”

The two-week online courses are free. “We built a model curriculum that walks a city through the process of creating highly competitive applications,” said Robert Blaine, senior executive for NLC’s Institute for Youth Education & Families, who is leading the program. The classes will work much “like an online degree program,” Blaine explained.

Each course will consist of three modules. First, participants will hear from experts to get them thinking about the topic and matters such as budgeting. Then participants will gather online in small group sessions. Finally, the hub will provide “office hours,” where participants can ask questions and get advice and feedback, Blaine said.

A major problem for communities in making grant applications is lack of data and data analysts on staff, according to Blaine. The class will show officials how to use NLC’s databank, which provides data broken down by census tract. “Now a team can look at not just what happens in a city, but by census tract across their communities. They can see pockets of disinvestments [and design grant applications] using the data in order to create the biggest impact for people in those communities,” Blaine said.

Very small cities also have the option to band together into a municipal league and apply for a shared grant. 

Initial boot camps will focus on grants being offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program and Flood Mitigation Assistance program, the Department of Transportation’s Charging and Fueling Infrastructure program and Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation program, and the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program.

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