Kentucky appropriation meant to cover local matches for federal grants could spin off huge returns

Published 12:33 pm Monday, February 5, 2024

By Bruce Schreiner, The Associated Press

FRANKFORT — For years, Ballard County has longed to build a riverport to capitalize on its strategic location at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Landing a federal grant would help launch the project, but there’s one catch — the rural Kentucky county can’t afford its share of the funding.

Kentucky lawmakers are working to overcome those obstacles with a House-passed measure that includes $450 million to cover local funding matches for communities and nonprofits that struggle to scrape together the money to qualify for federal assistance.

“It’s going to be a game-changer,” said Ballard County Judge-Executive Todd Cooper.

The appropriation has the potential to draw billions of dollars in federal grants into the Bluegrass State, fueling economic development, infrastructure, community revitalization, transportation and other projects that otherwise might never get off the ground.

“From the state’s perspective that’s a fantastic return on investment,” said Hannah Conover, executive director of Grant Ready Kentucky, a charitable program that offers technical support to communities and nonprofits struggling with the complexities of submitting federal grant requests.

“There’s an enormous amount of federal funding for a broad array of things,” she added. “But getting access to that federal funding is really hard. And this is going to open the door for folks that previously have been shut out of these opportunities.”

The state GRANT program could unlock federal grants to support coalfield communities struggling from the loss of mining jobs. It could help communities recovering from devastating natural disasters, such as the 2021 tornadoes that hit parts of western Kentucky and 2022 flooding that inundated areas of Appalachia.

The matching funds are part of a much larger appropriations bill. That measure, which taps into Kentucky’s massive budget reserves to make one-time investments, such as paying down state pension liabilities and supporting infrastructure and economic development, won 96-0 House passage last week to advance to the Senate. Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers.

The Kentucky law that created the GRANT program passed with little fanfare in 2023, but the prospect of leveraging state dollars to win much larger federal grants is drawing considerable attention from communities and nonprofits. Lawmakers appropriated $2 million last year to get the program started and gauge grassroots interest by offering enough funding to cover matches for a few projects.

Already, nearly 100 applications totaling more than $102 million in matching fund requests have been submitted to the Department for Local Government, which evaluates requests and awards funding. Those totals are expected to grow significantly if the next round of state funding wins final approval.

Officials are hoping for stepped up efforts statewide to assist communities and nonprofits in requesting federal grants, with the proposed new round of state support looming to cover local matches.

The initiative has drawn strong bipartisan support. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear says the program has “tremendous potential to help communities across Kentucky secure much-needed federal funding.” Republican Rep. Richard Heath, the lead sponsor of last year’s measure, says it’s a “once-in-a-life opportunity to get some things done that probably would never have gotten done.”

“We’re not looking for murals on walls,” Heath said recently. “We’re not looking for sidewalks. We want projects that are life-changing and game changers.”

Building a riverport would be that kind of project for Ballard County, with the potential to attract business and increase markets for farmers, Cooper said. The county, situated along Kentucky’s westernmost tip, needs more jobs for young adults to halt its steady population decline, he said.

The riverport project is expected to cost $50 million to $60 million. Area officials last year applied for a $9 million federal grant to help build the port at Wickliffe, the county seat 240 miles (386 kilometers) southwest of Louisville. The grant required a 20% local match, Cooper said.

“That was almost $2 million we would have to come up with that we do not have,” Cooper said.

In eastern Kentucky, the nonprofit group Backroads of Appalachia would like a federal grant to open more transitional housing for women in recovery from substance abuse, said Erik Hubbard, the group’s executive director. The group based in Lynch, 158 miles (254 kilometers) southeast of Lexington, hopes state dollars will help secure its match.

“As always, it comes to the match,” Hubbard said. “We could get a lot more funds for our people in our region, but it all comes down to our budget.”