Parks, Rec district hopes for share of stimulus windfall

The request spans seven projects including improving athletic fields and building pickleball courts.

South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District officials are hoping to get a healthy slice of Island County’s coveted federal stimulus dollars.

The county received $16.8 million through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which is a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill intended to speed the nation’s recovery from the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Municipal Research and Service Center, the money can be spent on a broad range of things, such as “necessary investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.”

The majority of the money the county received remains unspent; however, the board of county commissioners has been discussing ways to effectively use the funds. Under the law, the money has to be spent within three years. Funds do not have to be obligated until Dec. 31, 2024.

During a meeting Sept. 15, commissioners for the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District considered submitting a $2.9 million funding request to the county in an attempt to score some of the funding.

The request spans a total of seven projects, including improving athletic fields, building pickleball courts and extending the park district’s water system to the site where an aquatic center is slated to be constructed.

“We are uniquely suited to actually spend it on something that will actually bring people out and into the community, versus something that maybe is less directly connected to that and requires three or four other different things to happen,” Parks Commissioner Matt Simms said of the county’s funds.

The most costly item on the list is the conversion of the Sports Complex’s soccer field to a synthetic surface that can be used year-round, a project which is estimated to cost $1.65 million.

Simms’ fellow commissioners were supportive of the proposal.

“Going outdoors is going to continue to be people’s salvation for the near term,” Krista Loercher said. “I just don’t see how they can say no to this very effective argument.”

The parks commissioners agreed to approach the county commissioners about the proposal, with the hope that it will be on the agenda at a future county meeting.

Getting the proposal approved, however, may be easier said than done.

County Commissioner Jill Johnson, who represents the greater Oak Harbor area, said the board is working on setting aside $2 million of the federal funds for community service grants. In doing this, commissioners are considering how best to help populations affected the most by the pandemic. Organizations providing behavioral health, youth or senior services, for example, might be prime candidates.

“But I could see how they could apply some of those criteria depending on the programs and services they’re asking for,” she said of the parks and rec district.

Johnson stressed that the categories for the community service grant have not yet been fully determined or formalized.

Infrastructure projects may be better served by applying for a community development block grant, which is a separate source of funding used for capital purchases and improvements that is awarded yearly.

Johnson said she had spoken about this type of grant to members of the South Whidbey Parks and Aquatics Foundation, the group that has partnered with the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District to build a public pool. She has not, however, talked with them about applying for the county’s American Rescue Plan funds.

“Anybody can ask for whatever they want, but they shouldn’t feel confident they’ll get it,” she said. “There are no givens right now. It’s not a bad idea to try, but I wouldn’t count on it as guaranteed funding by any stretch of the imagination.”

Most recently, the county commissioners have discussed spending the bulk of the federal funds on a single project, such as affordable housing.

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