EAU CLAIRE — Supporting the arts, helping the homeless, giving a boost to minority groups and cleaning up area lakes are among ways Eau Claire County residents are suggesting $33.8 million in COVID-19 recovery funds coming to the area should be used.
Two dozen people spoke Thursday evening during an outdoor listening session that Eau Claire city and county officials held to solicit ideas on how the community should use its share of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act.
“We know we’re not going to recover without outside money,” said Julie Pangallo, executive director of Sculpture Tour Eau Claire.
She was among the voices of the local arts community that spoke about their contributions to local culture and the economy.
With venues and performing groups mostly shut down for about a year and a half, Eau Claire’s arts scene struggled through the pandemic.
“We stayed alive through sheer grit, but we are not thriving and could use your help,” former City Council President Kerry Kincaid said in a plea on behalf of the arts community.
Later in the evening, Kincaid returned to the microphone to also advocate for the use of funds to help establish a new supportive housing development to aid the homeless.
“COVID was a difficult time for people without a place to live,” she said.
Leaders of the affordable housing task force with community group JONAH agreed with that sentiment. Its members came to Thursday’s meeting with ideas for projects that would provide services they contend are desperately needed in Eau Claire.
“Currently we have no day services for our unhoused population,” said Susan Wolfgram, a co-chairwoman of that task force.
Allocating $1 million in the federal aid money to help build a facility with day services including bathrooms, showers, laundry, meals and help with financial and job skills was part of the request. The second part was a $3 million boost to the city’s affordable housing fund to specifically help people who have difficulty finding a landlord who will rent to them or are at risk of eviction.
Advocates for ethnic minorities in the Chippewa Valley spoke Thursday to ask for consideration when the federal funds are allocated.
Leaders of the Black & Brown Womyn Power Coalition urged elected officials to prioritize the federal money coming to the community for Hmong people and other groups hard hit by the pandemic. Pakou Thao, an organizer with the coalition, said she’s heard from people who lost businesses, struggled to pay rent and had their children fall behind in school during the pandemic.
The organization’s requests for the federal funds included money specifically to help artists, farmers and small business owners who are Black, indigenous and people of color.
An organization that helps area youths asked that a portion of the federal money go toward improving its Eau Claire branch.
Roxie Schmidt, operations director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Greater Chippewa Valley, said the building could use several upgrades to boost its capacity.
Chief among those is adding an elevator to make the building’s teen center accessible to people with disabilities. Other improvements included renovations to the teen area, bathroom upgrades and added security cameras.
Residents who live along two lakes in Eau Claire County want funding for projects that would improve the usage and health of those waterways.
Duane Ives, a town of Bridge Creek resident who lives on Lake Eau Claire, asked for money to help clean up what lakefront owners call “skid row.” That spot around a boat dock has become shallow due to sand buildup, which Ives wants dredged to make the dock more usable for boating and fishing.
Likewise, Michele Skinner, chairwoman of the Lake Altoona District Board, requested some federal money be used for a dredging project on the waterway she lives on. Use of the lake and the county park along it has risen during the pandemic, she said, but excess sediment, bacteria levels and algae blooms have limited days when people could enjoy it.
“These problems are happening at a time of high need for the lakes,” she said.
Thursday’s input session was one chance for the public to speak about how the federal money should be spent, but there will be more opportunities.
“We want direct input from residents on where you think the funds should go,” city Finance Director Jay Winzenz told the audience when the evening began.
The city made an online survey available today on its website that asks residents how they would use the money. The county government has formed a task force specifically to discuss ARPA fund use, and the public can make suggestions through its members or at meetings.
ARPA has broad categories for how communities can use the money. Projects that address the pandemic’s impact on households, unemployed workers, small businesses, nonprofit organizations, tourism-related entities and the hospitality industry are allowed uses. Using the funds to offset government revenue losses, public health needs, safety measures in gathering places and key workplaces, and capital improvements in public facilities attributed to the pandemic are other potential ways to use the money.
Other possible areas for spending include behavioral health care, services for the homeless, affordable housing development, addressing public health or educational disparities, and providing premium pay to eligible workers.
The act also allows the money to go toward improvements to water, sewer, stormwater and broadband infrastructure.
Seeing this level of federal relief money come into the community is rare, Winzenz said, and didn’t come during prior times of economic hardship.
“We haven’t seen these types of dollars before,” he said.
The city and county have until the end of 2024 to allocate the federal money, and it must be spent by 2026.
Of the $33.8 million coming to the community, there is $13.5 million that will be allocated by the city government and $20.3 million by the county government.
In July, the County Board decided that $2.8 million of its share of the federal relief money will go toward improving rural broadband.
On Thursday evening, Ives, the Bridge Creek homeowner, asked for that amount to increase. He said rural residents were really “handcuffed” when the pandemic forced schools and many businesses to shift online in spring 2020.