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Federal grant changes hurt local project
June 12, 2014 Jerry Purvis   

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Local tourism leaders are asking for help from Nebraska’s Congressional delegation after the terms of the federal grant were changed in the middle of the process.

In March of 2013, community leaders got together and applied for a $2 million grant offered by the Federal Highway Administration (FHA). The funding was to be used to widen the existing biking/hiking trail that would eventually run from Gering’s West Lawn Cemetery west to Scotts Bluff National Monument.

A local group was organized to raise the 20 percent of funding required by the grant. “We were informed our match could be in the form of in-kind services, but some cash would also be required,” said Brenda Leisy, director of the Scotts Bluff Area Visitors Bureau. “Scotts Bluff County gave $5,000 and so did the City of Gering. And Scotts Bluff County Tourism, as we were called then, gave $1,000 for promotion and marketing.”

The largest part of the in-kind services came from easements along the pathway. The feds also said in-kind services could include design, environmental compliance issues and community relations and maintenance. The district office of the Nebraska Department of Roads also agreed to do the milling on the pathway.

“The FHA agreed to that and we had everything under control,” Leisy said. “A year later, we were informed the in-kind match previously negotiated was no longer acceptable. They said the current definition of in-kind no longer applied and we would have to come up with the entire $100,000 or lose the grant.”

In order to buy some time, Leisy contacted Nebraska U.S. Senators Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer, along with U.S. Representative Adrian Smith. “We let them know what happened and asked if they could help us out,” she said. “What we really need is more time to determine whether it’s worth it to pursue the project further or if we could raise $100,000 locally.”

She also wants to know whether it’s acceptable for the FHA to change the rules in the middle of the project and after the agency agreed to the original terms.

Leisy said she received an email from Fischer’s office saying they’d be in contact when more information was available. She talked with Smith at last weekend’s Cattlemen’s Ball in Banner County. Johanns’ office also called and said they were opening an investigation into the matter.

“I also asked the FHA for a copy of the changes they made,” she said. “I want to know where in the project the rules were changed, but I haven’t heard back from them. I’d like to get the project grandfathered in, because if we lose the grant, the funds would probably leave the state.”
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