By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Armed with $12 million in seed money, a coalition is taking the next steps in a fight to eradicate poverty in north-central Montana.
"Today is the first day of a 10-year project," Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., said earlier this week. "Now we need to take a deep breath and think about organization."
The charitable foundation created by the family of railroad magnate James J. Hill on Monday awarded the Northcentral Montana Community Ventures Coalition $12 million to help fund its poverty-reduction proposals. The foundation, called the Northwest Area Foundation, has a mandate to develop long-term solutions to reduce proverty in the eight-state region Hill's railroad operated in.
Money will start flowing down the pipe after agreements are reached about how to disburse the money. The foundation expects the agreements to be in place by March.
The grant will be disbursed over a 10-year schedule of projects.
The Montana project, which requested $13 million, was one of two projects awarded grants from a short list of applicants including projects in Idaho, North Dakota and Iowa. The foundation awarded the Idaho project $11 million.
The area the Montana project covers includes 11 counties and three Indian reservations: Blaine, Cascade, Chouteau, Glacier, Hill, Judith Basin, Liberty, Phillips, Pondera, Teton and Toole counties and the Blackfeet, Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy reservations.
Tuss said the money from the foundation will be used to leverage other funding for projects with an estimated cost of almost $75 million identified so far.
Some projects were being worked on before the foundation awarded the grant, said coalition member Randy Hanson, Montana Department of Commerce regional development officer in Havre.
One project is hosting a reading program sponsored by the Montana Council for the Humanities. The Havre-Hill County Library and the Fort Belknap library are among several in the region hosting discussions about books dealing with cultural diversity and poverty in north-central Montana.
Hanson said another project has received funding outside of the the foundation grant. The youth asset development program is being conducted in conjunction with The Alliance for Youth in Great Falls, the Helping Kids Succeed--Alaska Style program and the Alaska Initiative for Community Engagement.
Several other projects, including a pilot program at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation to promote healthy living and disease prevention, also were started before the foundation awarded the grant.
For the last six weeks or so, the steering committee has been applying for other grants, Hanson said.
People from outside of the coalition have been approaching it to ask for help or to discuss how they can help, he said.
"People are coming to the forefront," Hanson said.
For instance, the coalition's proposal noted that the average lifespan on the reservations in the region is 25 years shorter than the average outside the reservations, Hanson said. Executives of financial institutions in the region have approached the coalition to find out how they can help with projects to change that, he said.
Cascade County Commissioner Peggy Beltrone, co-chair of the coalition steering committee, said she has had the same response from members of the medical community in Great Falls who were unaware of the difference in lifespans.
"They want to be involved in anything they can do to help mitigate or close that gap because that's the business they're in," she said.
Beltrone said other people have approached her about working with the coalition.
The director of the Corporation for National Service contacted her this week to discuss sending VISTA volunteers to the area to work on coalition projects, Beltrone said.
The regional director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services also contacted her to talk about how coalition projects can help the department do a better job, she said.
People are starting to think about the project area as a region, instead of individual communities, Beltrone said.
"It's a mind change for people. It's exciting," she said.
Hanson said that change in mind-set can be seen in other projects, like a study being done on forming a cooperative to raise baby carrots and process them at a plant in Chester and a combination ethanol plant and cattle feedlot being studied at Fort Belknap.
People are proposing projects with a regional scope and impact instead of focusing locally, Hanson said.
He added that people aren't as focused on finding one big economic success to solve economic problems, but are looking at long-term planning instead.
Now that the anti-poverty grant has been awarded, the most obvious immediate action will be creating the organization to implement the projects, Hanson said.
The proposal budgets about $4 million of the $75 million in projected expenses over 10 years for hiring staff and providing office space, equipment and training.
The coalition's plan is to have an executive director hired by March, when the agreement between the coalition and the foundation is complete.
The director will hire the remaining staff, including people to staff the office, to apply for grants, and six people to work locally as regional liaisons between the communities and the coalition.
Hanson said the regional coordinators each will have a specialty like housing, economic development or culture. One coordinator will be assigned to each reservation in the region, and one to each of three geographic areas in the region.
The coordinators will work together, utilizing their specialty for projects or problems in different regions, Hanson said.
"They will go where their specialty is needed," he said.
Part of the coordinators' job will be helping people find the agencies and organizations that can help them with specific needs, Hanson said. Another part of their job will be to help find a sponsoring agency to bring in organizations to help with a problem if there isn't a resource available.
The coalition presented a 124-page proposal, with 500 pages of appendixes and a 30-minute documentary about poverty in the region, to the foundation as its application for the grant. The section on specific strategies and actions covers 61 pages.
Ways to reduce poverty were examined in seven main areas: building healthy families and improving communities, health, the regional economy, the availability of quality education, the availability of safe housing, and the availability of transportation.
Proposed projects often fell within several of those areas.
The projects include increasing awareness of what transportation is available and increasing its availability. Another is finding ways to help people buy and maintain their own vehicles.
The coalition has a goal of making sure every person in the area has access to telephone service, computers and the Internet, and training to use the technology by 2013.
Another project is to reduce racism and bigotry through a variety of methods. The coalition found that racism is prevalent in the area, including bigotry between Indians and non-Indians, between people of different ethnic backgrounds, between people living in different areas, between different reservations, and between groups within reservations.
The proposal includes several projects to help people buy or build homes, and to rehabilitate existing structures. The coalition found that homelessness and inadequate housing, including several families living in a single-family home, is common in the region.
Tuss said an emphasis of the project is to ensure that existing programs are not duplicated. Rather, the project could work with, promote and assist existing programs.
Another emphasis is that the coalition will closely watch the projects to ensure they do not create unintended harms.
The coalition will act as an umbrella organization coordinating the actions of the project, with Bear Paw Development Corp. continuing to handle the money the project uses. The steering committee is considering whether to create a nonprofit entity in the future to replace Bear Paw Development as the fiscal agent, Tuss said.
On the Net: Northwest Area Foundation: www.nwaf.org