Well over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, relief for communities across the country may be on the horizon. Along with the rising vaccination rates, the American Rescue Plan Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund offers economic support.
Totaling almost $2 trillion, billions of dollars have been allocated for restaurant revitalization, education programs, training for healthcare workers, economic development, infrastructure grants, support for small businesses, and more. This includes billions in direct payments to counties across the U.S. to stimulate their local economies and help meet budget shortfalls.
While guidance about how this funding can and can’t be used is still evolving, we spoke with our professionals-in-residence, Julie Glover and Lisa LaMere, to gather their tips, tricks, and advice for how to make the most of this opportunity.
Tip #1: Be Ready
Above all, their biggest piece of advice was start planning now.
“Really, there’s still a lot more to learn about what communities can and can’t do with the funds,” LaMere said. “But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sit down and start thinking about it, brainstorming, and running through different what-if scenarios.”
For instance, what if there was money to buy a retail center? Or what if there was money to match another grant? Or fund the expansion of a medical center or a nursing facility? Or revitalize restaurants downtown? Questions like these can serve as good jumping-off points for coming up with other ideas.
Having a solid plan in place, knowing who needs the help, and understanding how the funding will be distributed is very important in situations like these, according to Glover. That way, once the funding arrives, no one is left scrambling.
In addition to brainstorming, other steps to take can include lobbying council members to get ideas for economic development projects approved; understanding the hoops and red tape that might surround the approval of projects, grants, or programs your community is pursuing; and determining what type of reporting you may have to do.
Tip #2: Use Data to Boost Tourism
The tourism industry was hit hard by the pandemic—communities, restaurants, and small businesses all lost income as public health mandates closed doors and kept visitors at home. But now as those mandates lift and folks get vaccinated, people are itching to get out of the house. Because of this, both Glover and LaMere believe using ARPA funds to boost tourism is a sound investment.
One way to do this is through Economic Development Administration grants. With the infusion of federal funds, the administration’s budget is more than doubling, and a portion of the budget has even been set aside for communities hit hard by the lack of tourism and travel. For example, the EDA recently funded programs for both the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development and the Alaska Travel Industry to help promote and reopen the states’ tourism economies. It is important to remember that communities applying for grants must have matching funds and the amount will depend on the grant.
Knowing where tourists are coming from and the demographic and psychographic make-up of these visitors is key for economic development professionals hoping to advertise their community to the right crowds. This knowledge can also be advantageous when applying for grants. Fortunately, Buxton's detailed analytics can make this easier.
Customer behavioral data helps communities understand visitors and customers. Combined with household level demographics and lifestyle data, this gives communities an accurate view of who their core visitors are, and where other similar target audiences can be found. This turns marketing efforts into a precise and focused process, as opposed to a hopeful shot in the dark. It can also be used to support a community’s case for additional grant funding.
Tip #3: Consider Redevelopment
The pandemic hit many businesses hard, closing thousands upon thousands permanently. This could mean your community is littered with vacancies that now need filling.
While technology exists to help lease those vacancies—like Buxton’s Match, which uses customer behavioral data to assess the potential of any retail, restaurant, or consumer services brand at a specific site—redeveloping the space for other uses might be another option. For example, LaMere said Pleasanton, Texas, recently repurposed an elementary school into a business center that also had space for retailers.
Other options Glover and LaMere suggest considering are bringing medical providers, such as an urgent care clinic, into retail spaces; using the educational provision of ARPA to expand training facilities for nurses into nontraditional spaces; or turning big box vacancies into mixed-use, or even residential spaces. With redevelopment like this, often times infrastructure needs must be reassessed, which could be another use for the federal funding.
The Bottom Line
No matter how your community plans on using the federal stimulus funds, having a plan in place is a vital first step that will help make kickstarting your economy easier.
Looking to explore more data-driven and technology-backed use cases for your community’s American Rescue Plan Act funding? Check out our guide, Revitalizing Your Local Economy Post-Pandemic.