by CHRIS ROGERS

 

On Tuesday the Winona County Board will vote on a framework for how to spend $9.8 million in federal COVID relief funding. The tentative plan would direct $3 million to various county programs — from fixing failing septic tanks to upgrading Stone Point Park — $1.5 million to aid for local businesses and nonprofits, and $2.5 million toward community grant-making. Previously, the board dedicated $2.6 million to expand rural broadband internet. The funding comes from the American Rescue Plan (ARP), passed by Congress early this year.

Over the summer, the county hired Engage Winona to garner public input on how the pandemic affected Winona County residents and how the ARP funding could help them and their communities. Many respondents described a toll on their mental health and connections to family, friends, and their community, and some reported financial burdens. As for how this funding could help, the most popular suggestion was investments in community activities and public spaces, including parks, schools, libraries, youth recreation, and senior centers, according to Engage Winona. Infrastructure — including broadband and roads — was another common suggestion. Describing the lack of high-speed internet in rural areas, one respondent wrote, “It was difficult to conduct business from home during the pandemic ... the pandemic really magnified the issues we’ve struggled with for many years.” Additionally, scores of people called for boosting funding for mental health care and affordable housing and aiding small businesses.

The proposed spending plan earmarks $1.5 million for direct grants of up to $20,000 each to local businesses and not-for-profit organizations.

In the last round of federal COVID relief divvied out by the county, the CARES Act, the county also allocated aid to local businesses, but $120,000 in requests for assistance came in from local companies after the money had already been used up, County Administrator Ken Fritz said. “There are a number of businesses that did not get assistance under that program, and we know a number of businesses are still struggling, epsecially hospitality businesses,” he explained.

Unlike the CARES Act package, in which the county dedicated money for housing assistance, the ARP plan does not include any funding specifically set aside to aid individuals or families. However, some of the $2.5 million for community grant-making could benefit mental health care or affordable housing. The county has already received proposals from Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center for improvements to its buildings, from the Southeast Minnesota Multi-County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (SEMMCHRA) for affordable housing in St. Charles and Altura, and from the Winona Community Warming Center for a social-worker-type position focused on homelessness. Other proposals so far include new restrooms at the Winona County Fairgrounds, improvement to the Lewiston Crossings event venue, and sewer and water upgrades for the city of St. Charles.

The county plans to put out a call for applications for the both the business assistance and community grant-making programs in the spring, Fritz said. Organizations or citizens could propose other grant projects. An “ARP Team” consisting of the county administrator, SEMMCHRA Executive Director Buffy Beranek, Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Christie Ransom, St. Charles City Administrator Nick Koverman, and Winona YMCA CEO Janneke Sobeck would review the grant applications before making recommendations to the County Board, Fritz said. Grants would be evaluated based on whether they meet ARP eligibility requirements and match the needs of the county identified by Engage Winona’s surveys.

A full description of the ARP plan is available starting on page 225 of the County Board agenda. The board will meet at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at the Winona County Office Building in Winona. The meeting is open to the public, either in person or via the videoconferencing system RingCentral.

Chris@winonapost.com