With this month’s announcement that Springfield will receive nearly $21 million of federal funds for a placemaking project, the city is in pretty exclusive company.
Along with Milan, a small town in northern Missouri, Springfield was one of two municipalities in the state to receive funding through the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development Transportation Discretionary Grants program, aka BUILD. The U.S. Department of Transportation announced Nov. 12 that 55 projects in 35 states were awarded grant funds, which includes Springfield’s Grant Avenue Parkway Trail Connection Project.
“This was all a total surprise to find out about,” said Mary Lilly Smith, Springfield planning and development director.
The city’s placemaking project aims to expand its greenway trail system, while making numerous transportation improvements along a 3.3-mile stretch of Grant Avenue from downtown Springfield to Sunshine Street. It’s a connecting corridor that on the southern end will take people into Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium and the Bass Pro Shops campus.
Smith said city staff members weren’t expecting an answer from the federal government before December. But a Nov. 6 announcement by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, included Springfield in the $900 million approved through the BUILD program for 2019.
The city was denied project funding in its first application last year. Stakeholders, including the city, Ozark Greenways Inc. and City Utilities of Springfield, were cautiously optimistic after resubmitting an application for the highly competitive funding in July.
“To hear about it in early November, it was ‘Whoa!’ It was a very nice surprise to receive,” said Mary Kromrey, executive director of Ozark Greenways.
Smith said the nearly $21 million in funding was the exact total the city requested.
Program grants range from $5 million to $25 million and require a 20% match. For Springfield’s project, that equates to over $5.2 million. City spokeswoman Cora Scott said $1 million of the total has been pledged by City Utilities for utility relocations. She said there also would be an opportunity for private investment. The city’s funding portion is expected to comprise revenue from its quarter-cent capital improvement sales tax and one-eighth-cent transportation sales tax, said Public Works Director Dan Smith. Voters approved renewal of both taxes this year, with each having a 20-year sunset.
Quality of place
The project calls for an elaborate makeover with bike lanes, a roundabout, bridge enhancements, utility upgrades, fiber connectivity, additional crossings and signal timing improvements. Officials see the grant as a chance to enhance a large area of public spaces in a single project.
Noting a major goal of City Council is to create a quality of place, City Manager Jason Gage said the Grant Avenue project “fits that dead on.” Economic vitality is another goal.
“Historically, these types of projects can have those economic vitality impacts for the region where they’re at and serve as a connectivity piece,” Gage said.
Geoffrey Butler, a 41-year architect in Springfield and founding partner of BRP Architects, said there aren’t a lot of undeveloped areas in the Grant Avenue corridor, which is largely residential. “I don’t think you’re going to see a wholesale change in that corridor from its current use,” he said of potential commercial developments. “But a connection between downtown and Wonders of Wildlife would be a plus.”
The Bass Pro area also is in the mix among city and Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau officials as a future convention center development site.
Mary Lilly Smith said the timing of the grant coincides with the early phases of Forward SGF, its next 20-year comprehensive plan. Residents say they want a more walkable and beautiful community. “It’s really an opportunity for us to showcase what we can do in terms of creating a beautiful multimodal corridor through the community, … creating that place, creating that connection through two major activity centers,” she said. “And we’re providing an opportunity for biking and walking, a transit corridor.”
WOW brought in 1.6 million visitors its first year after reopening in September 2017.
“It’s going to be great for tourists, but it’s going to be wonderful for those that live here, too,” Kromrey said.
Kromrey said the project will expand Ozark Greenways’ trail system, with connections to the Fassnight Creek and Jordan Creek greenways. Part of the trail system growth extends south, as development continues for a planned $8 million extension of the Chadwick Flyer Rail Trail, which runs between Springfield and Ozark. Easement discussions with property owners are ongoing that could lead to the development of an approximately 7.5-mile length of the almost 17-mile trail from near the edge of Missouri Veterans Cemetery in Springfield south to the Ozark Community Center.
“We have a lot of positive momentum working with landowners on the alignment,” Kromrey said, adding the goal is to contact all landowners by the end of March 2020. “We are in the process of seeking federal grant dollars and have secured the local match.”
Adding in the Grant Avenue project, she said, “The next five or six years will be huge.”
Clock is ticking
While the BUILD grant has been announced, the funding is not in hand.
“This is all we have,” Smith said, holding up a notification from Blunt’s office. “We have nothing formal from the Department of Transportation, the contract documents, we don’t have any of that stuff yet.”
Upon receiving formal documentation, the city will enter into the grant agreement. She said the next step is to go before council to accept the funds and appropriate the match.
Gage doesn’t expect the grant agreement – which sets the rules for how the money is spent – to be received any earlier than December. That likely means the item won’t make it to council before January. Design work can then follow. City staff has created preliminary renderings as part of the application, and it’s unclear if design and construction bids would go out to the public.
Dan Smith in Public Works said residents and city partners would need to be engaged before construction begins. He added all preconstruction activities must be complete by Sept. 30, 2021. Additionally, the grant stipulates the project must conclude by 2026.
“We’ve got to have a huge community component in the beginning,” he said, adding no timeline has been established for when or how public feedback will be collected. “We want input as this is a community project. That’s really laying the groundwork for a successful project.”
The Grant Avenue project might not have come to pass if the city didn’t take another shot after first being turned down. Gage said applications for large grant programs like BUILD don’t always get funded the first time out. It was a lesson in persistence for the city.
“If you’re serious about the project, see what the next opportunity looks like,” he said. “We did that and we’re very glad we did.”
Builders predict costs will remain elevated well into 2021.
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