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Roanoke lays out plans for spending pandemic relief money

Roanoke lays out plans for spending pandemic relief money

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Five members of the Roanoke City Council meet in person July 20 at city hall for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic state of emergency was declared in March. Council members Bill Bestpitch, who chose to work from his home due to the pandemic, and Djuna Osborne, who has self-quarantined after traveling to coronavirus-stricken South Carolina, participated in the meeting by telephone.

Roanoke is nearly ready to start doling out more than $7 million of aid to local businesses, nonprofits and families hurt by the pandemic.

City Manager Bob Cowell briefed the Roanoke City Council on Monday about recommendations made by a 36-person task force that spent the past month prioritizing how to spend federal and local money that the city received to boost the economy and help people in need.

That group, called the Star City Strong Recovery Fund Task Force, narrowed more than 50 initiatives down to four general categories: local economy, the safety net , youth/education and personal protective equipment.

The city created the task force in June to determine how to equitably distribute the funds, most of it coming from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — more commonly called the CARES Act.

The city received $8.6 million in CARES Act funding in June, and opted to create the task force and hear from citizens before allocating the funds.

“We took the time as a community,” said Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea. “We did not arbitrarily start writing a check.”

Meeting in person inside council chambers for the first time since March 16, the council gave Cowell the go -ahead to begin putting the task force’s recommendations in action.

Most of the money comes with restrictions that limit its use specifically to problems caused by the pandemic. The CARES Act money must be spent by Dec. 31.

The city set aside about $3 million of its CARES Act money to use for expenses related to reopening municipal facilities, such as purchasing supplies and personal protective equipment for employees and visitors to city hall and other buildings.

The remaining $5.6 million was combined with other funds, which included about $1 million in Emergency Solutions Grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, $450,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds from HUD specifically for small business support and $500,000 from the city’s economic development fund.

Within each of the four designated categories, the task force listed specific priorities. Money will be allocated for job training for people who lost work or were furloughed, and grants will be available for businesses.

Economic support money also will be available for arts and culture programs and for tourism marketing.

To make the allocations more efficient and equitable, the city will partner with several nonprofits that already have programs that match the task force’s priorities.

Cowell said that spreading money among many organizations will allow the city to return to the economic growth it was seeing before the pandemic.

“We can regain the momentum that we had in the community,” he told council members. “Not simply go back to what we had before, but be better than we were before.”

The city could create new programs, Cowell said, especially in the youth and education category.

Cowell talked about trying to find ways to create networks of virtual learning hubs for Roanoke students and to increase availability of broadband service for families who choose to keep their students out of schools this year because of COVID-19.

The city soon will release details about how small businesses can apply for money.

Because the funds are grants and not loans, businesses will not be required to pay back any money they receive.

Lea and Vice Mayor Joe Cobb co-chaired the task force, which met through online teleconferencing about a half-dozen times over the past month.

The council, the city manager and a few other civic groups appointed the members of the task force, which aimed to represent a range of racial, gender and age diversity.

“It was a great representation of the community,” said Brenda Hale, president of Roanoke’s NAACP and a task force member.

She told council members that the multi-generational makeup of the task force, which ranged from teenagers to senior citizens, “was a star to the Star City.”

Task force member Chris Bryant, who also serves on the Youth Services Citizen Board, likewise praised the city’s efforts to include residents in the decision-making process.

“I learned a lot about how people could get together and come up with a good set of ideas,” she said.

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Ralph Berrier Jr. has worked at The Roanoke Times since 1993. He covers the City of Roanoke and writes the Dadline parenting column.

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