Consultant helps Minot manage grant dollars
MINOT, N.D. (AP) — Minot was facing hundreds of millions of dollars in flood recovery costs when it called on CDM Smith in 2011 to help navigate the available federal disaster aid programs.
The Minot Daily News reports that the consulting firm continues to work alongside the city as the focus has shifted from emergency response and recovery to long-term resilience. These past years spent in the community talking with residents has been valuable in understanding Minot’s needs, said Melissa Ziegler, CDM Smith’s lead practitioner for economic development and economic competitiveness.
“You get to know people and how they were affected by the flood. You hear people’s stories. When you can do that, it really improves the way that you see the vision for the future that people have for Minot. It really does make a difference when you are invested,” she said.
CDM Smith began working with the city in August 2011. An engineering and construction firm headquartered in Boston, CDM Smith provides solutions in water, environment, transportation, energy and facilities to public and private clients worldwide.
CDM Smith’s disaster response branch has about 200 employees who focus on disaster recovery and FEMA projects across the country, said Steven Wolsfeld, company vice president. About another 50 employees work on Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery programs. CDM Smith most recently has been working on disaster programs in Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Louisiana, where it has program offices like the one in Minot.
The Minot office in Arrowhead Shopping Center has 15 to 20 employees, Wolsfeld said. Nine are full-time employees. They include six people hired locally from the Minot area, and three transplants who now call Minot home. The local office also draws on expertise from specialists in areas such as HUD compliance, economic development, hydrology, urban planning and financial planning.
Wolsfeld, an engineer based in the St. Paul office, called Minot his largest responsibility because of the scope of the local program.
Wolsfeld said the National Disaster Resilience Competition was extremely involved — more so than any grant program CDM Smith had previously encountered. CDBG-DR grants focus on recovery so are designed to restore housing and infrastructure. The resilience program goes beyond recovery to build up communities and create resilient models for the nation.
In Minot, projects include developing a river management modeling tool, family homeless shelter, affordable housing, resilient neighborhoods, a downtown gathering space and a center for technical education. While CDM Smith can provide experts to facilitate those projects, the knowledge base within the community and the involvement of local residents is necessary to drive the projects, Wolsfeld and Ziegler said.
“The participation level is really good. Everyone is engaged and it’s a lot of people engaged,” Wolsfeld said.
Ziegler spoke of Minot’s strong sense of “neighborhood.” Before the flood, it prompted people to pull trailers through the valley, looking for strangers who needed help moving their belongings from the path of coming water. After the flood, it became apparent in the degree of public engagement into developing a resilience plan.
“There really are some very special things about Minot. One of the things I find most compelling is the way people want to work together to make things better for the broader community,” Ziegler said. “It wasn’t just about what’s for me. It’s about what’s for the community. You don’t find that a lot of places. That’s one of the things about Minot, to me, that really stands out. People who live here might not think it’s all that special, but it really is. That’s one of the things that really touched HUD and part of the reason Minot got the resilience money.”
Other Minot qualities appreciated by CDM Smith staff members who have worked around the country include the persistence of stakeholders, who are willing to stick with projects long-term to provide continuity, and the ability of the city to turn around decisions fairly quickly.
The administration of federal grants for programs affecting homes and neighborhoods has enabled CDM Smith staff to develop close relationships with residents affected by the flood, Wolsfeld said.
“The case workers especially were working hand-in-hand with the residents on a daily basis. You really get invested in making a difference and helping them,” he said.
As an example of a typical project, the CDBG-DR housing rehabilitation program began with CDM Smith’s HUD program specialist identifying the guidelines and procedures. From there, CDM Smith created an application process and employed caseworkers to take and process applications, determine any duplication of benefits and look for ways the program might help different homeowners.
CDM Smith then requested proposals from contractors, identifying firms qualified to do the work. CDM Smith brought in two full-time construction inspectors to oversee the work as well as an environmental specialist to inspect each home. Throughout the process, CDM Smith worked closely with city officials and staff. They prepared the final documents to close out the project.
CDM staff members speak proudly of the 300 homes rebuilt with help from CDBG-DR funds and get excited about the renovation occurring on the Park South apartment complex that’s part of a resilience program to provide affordable housing.
CDM Smith will have an office in Minot for some time yet because the resilience program has a six-year life that extends into 2022.
“Things are moving at about the speed we would expect,” Wolsfeld said. “Everyone would love to see all these programs implemented immediately but it takes time to do the right planning, to make sure the plans are set up correctly and implemented correctly. It takes time and effort in working with the constraints of the HUD guidelines.”
Ensuring compliance with HUD rules has been a critical part of CDM Smith’s role. Even with experts handling the paperwork, it’s not unusual for HUD auditors, who look through compliance reports with a highly specialized lens, to uncover errors. But Minot’s issues have been minor, Wolsfeld said. Minot would not have received the resilience grant if its handling of the two CDBG-DR grants hadn’t gone as well as they did, he said.
Not all CDBG-DR projects have gone as hoped, though. Minot’s two downtown parking ramps not only ran well ahead of projected costs but still wait for the associated retail businesses and apartment construction. The city also has moved to declare a developer of an uncompleted southeast housing project in default. The developer has accused the city of causing the project’s delay and violating HUD rules.
A change in the oil economy that rippled through the housing market is being felt by these projects, which CDM Smith no longer has involvement in since the grant portion has concluded. Wolsfeld and Ziegler voiced confidence Minot will find a way to figure out solutions, though.
“You can’t always control what happens, but the true measure is how you respond to it,” Ziegler said.
In HUD circles, Minot is called “the little engine that could” because of how well the small community has tackled its challenges, Ziegler said. Minot’s challenges have been unique because of the timing of the flood during an oil boom.
“There’s a lot of lessons to be learned from having two events occurring at the same time,” Ziegler said. “There’s a lot for other communities to learn from what happened.”
The City of Minot has relied on consultant CDM Smith to assist in administering $177 million in federal disaster recovery grants since 2012.
The city received $67.7 million in Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds in 2012 to repair infrastructure, support a southeast housing development and downtown parking ramps, aid in constructing Cook’s Court and Fieldcrest affordable housing, provide rental rehabilitation and relocation assistance for displaced tenants, develop emergency and flood preparedness plans and acquire, demolish, rehabilitate or reconstruct flooded properties.
CDM Smith was contracted for and provided about $7.4 million in services, which came out of the grant funds.
In 2014, the city received another $35 million CDBG-DR grant. Money was directed toward projects that included infrastructure repair, homeowner reimbursements, acquisition of flooded properties, demolitions, relocation assistance for displaced tenants and an Anne Street Bridge planning study.
CDM Smith was contracted for $8.98 million from the grant, receiving all but $106,081 to date.
CDM Smith’s current focus is administering the $74.3 million National Disaster Resilience grant awarded in 2016. The consultant has been contracted for $19.38 million, with only about $4.6 million paid out so far. The resilience grant must be spent by mid-2022.
The resilience program includes acquisitions, demolitions, relocations, affordable housing, a family homeless shelter, downtown gathering space, city hall relocation, center for technical education, affordable housing market study and other planning activities, ecological restoration in flood storage areas and a Souris River decision tool for river management modeling.
The city also paid just over $3 million to CDM Smith for assisting with Federal Emergency Management programs after the 2011 flood.
Information from: Minot Daily News, http://www.minotdailynews.com