Funding idea for PDR program discussed

June 22, 2012
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The latest figure from 2011 shows that nearly $4.3 million had been invested in the Purchase of Development Rights program, an effort Kent County enacted in late 2002 to preserve farms and orchards as a land-use and economic priority.

About three-quarters of those dollars — roughly $3.2 million — have come from USDA land preservation grants and local private grants. Much of the private grant money — almost $1.6 million — has come from foundations, such as the Frey, Wege and Grand Rapids Community foundations.

Since 2010, the county has been looking for ways to permanently fund the PDR program without digging into its general operating budget. A subcommittee established that year released a report in early 2011 that cited the three foundations as being the local funding backbone of the program. The report suggested eight methods to fund it, including putting a dedicated millage request before voters.

The most recent incarnation of the PDR subcommittee invited representatives of the three foundations to a somewhat informal brainstorming session to get their opinions about a possible millage. But the millage that was offered for their consideration wasn’t an ongoing dedicated levy like the senior millage. Instead, it was one that County Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish described as “one and done”: one mill for one year that could generate $18 million and could include a community challenge grant from the foundations.

Parrish pointed out that Wyoming recently used such a funding tool to build its public library. In it, the foundations would make a grant pledge tied to the millage request and would only follow through on it if voters approve the millage. Parrish wondered if the same funding mechanism could be used to help bankroll the PDR program, but the foundation officials didn’t think so, at least for now.

Marsha Rapp, vice president of programs for the GR Community Foundation, said her organization is involved in a lot of public-private partnerships, even more than in past years, and has put a lot of money into the PDR program as an incentive for the county to invest more in it.

A few years ago, the foundation’s board approved a $300,000 grant over three years that required the county to invest $350,000 in 2011 and this year to collect the full grant of $100,000 per year. The county’s spending has fallen short of that mark, and the foundation’s award has been pro-rated to its spending level.

Rapp said the foundation wasn’t certain whether it wants to publicly support a county millage at a time when no one is sure whether the public would back it, whether they know enough about the program, and whether there are enough county commissioners who would support a millage. “Is the community and (county) commission really for it? I would be open to doing more of the education issue,” she said.

Terri McCarthy, vice president of programs at the Wege Foundation, pointed out that voters recently defeated a millage request from Grand Rapids Community College, one the school has brought before the electorate on three occasions. “I think we’re a long way from a millage. I don’t think the community is ready,” she said. “Mr. Wege sees a farm as a business and we will continue to support it farm by farm.”

Steve Wilson, who replaced the retired Milt Rohwer as Frey Foundation president in January, said his organization supports land-use issues as it just awarded a grant to a land conservancy near Traverse City. “I think that speaks to the Frey Foundation’s interest in this topic,” said Wilson.

Wilson said his foundation looks for collaborative partnerships, such as working with the county on an issue, but won’t invest more than 15 percent in any single project. Before Wilson arrived at Frey, its board also awarded the PDR program a grant worth $250,000 over three years that requires a county match.

Wilson felt the county should build more awareness of its program before it goes ahead with a millage request. “How can that be captured?” he asked.

Wilson said he heard some exciting things from the county contingent that visited Lancaster County in Pennsylvania a few weeks ago. Lancaster is known for having one of the most successful preservation programs in the country, and Wilson said the county needs to find a way to communicate that excitement to residents here.

“They look at this as economic development,” said County Commissioner Bill Hirsch, in reference to the Lancaster approach. “I think it was a great trip, and everyone benefitted from it.”

“We have a pro-development program,” said County Commissioner Tom Antor of the local PDR effort.

Kent County Land Bank Authority Executive Director Dave Allen went on the latest trip and said he was duly impressed. He said the Lancaster preservation program made the county so well known in the field that it drew one of the nation’s largest farm machinery manufacturers to the county, and today, most of the equipment sold along the eastern seaboard is built there.

“It really turned me on my ear. I now know there is a connection between agricultural preservation and urban development,” said Allen, who has been an urban developer for 19 years.

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