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'Game changer' grant program for Arizona tribes, towns, nonprofits

Imagine investing $800,000 into a program and see it generate $6 million in a year. Local First Arizona says it’s happening through the Arizona Economic Recovery Center

How it works

Vendors at the Prescott Farmers Market are experts on cucumbers, carrots and chickens. Not necessarily on grant lingo like NOFAs, NOFOs and 990s. 

“As a small nonprofit, we get really siloed in our community and what we know,” said Kathleen Yetman, the market’s executive director. “What’s really challenging sometimes with grants is that you know that you have a really great need and you know that this is a viable project but convincing someone on the other side of the country that it is, that doesn’t understand the demographics or the location, the landscape of where you are is really challenging.”

The farmers market had started working on a federal grant application when Yetman attended a presentation by Local First Arizona’s Kimber Lanning. 

“We’ve contracted with grant writers and project managers and facilitators and others that can help build capacity and collaboration so that Arizona can be more competitive and more of these dollars can come back to our state,” Lanning said.

The program helps small towns and cities, tribes and nonprofits without their own grant writers. The Nogales Community Development Corporation received the first grant — $50,000 from the federal government — to launch The “Little” Mercado for small enterprises to operate in the heart of the border city’s business district. 

Lanning said, “We all did a huge dance in the office” when staff heard the news.

They've celebrated 50 more times as organizations received six million dollars in awards. It started in May 2021 after Lanning convinced Vitalyst Health Foundation, Freeport-McMoRan, Arizona Community Foundation, Salt River Project, Arizona Complete Health, Arizona G&T Cooperatives and the state to chip in more than $800,000 to launch the center. 

“So every dollar in, yields $28 back for our communities,” Lanning said. 

“It was a game changer for us,” said Kerwin Brown, interim executive director for Tanner Community Development Corporation, the nonprofit outreach arm of Tanner Chapel AME Church, which is the oldest African American congregation in Arizona.

""It was a game changer for us." — Kerwin Brown, Tanner Community Development Corporation

Brown heard about a state grant that could help Tanner CDC reach its goal of building a community of tiny homes for veterans. 

“For them to be homeless out there, to me, is just criminal,” he said. “Research has told us, especially homeless veterans, they do better if they have their own space rather than being cooped up in an apartment complex situation.”

The grant opportunity meant Tanner CDC could request more than $400,000 to hire architects, conduct soil samples, and do other pre-development work to demonstrate the project could be successful. It was an exciting, rare opportunity — with a tight turnaround, about five days to write and submit a proposal. 

“I don’t have a grant writer here,” Brown said. “If we’re going to do research, everybody’s got to be all on board and start google searching to put together the information that we need.”

Fortunately, Local First connected Brown’s team with a professional grant writer and they got it. That success led Tanner CDC to apply for $2.8 million in federal funds to offer veterans services and build 35 homes. Grant recipients should be notified this August. 

“There will be a certain number that will be 600 square feet and there will be fewer that will be 400 square feet,” Brown said. “They look amazing. You’ve got a little front porch out front, a place for a carport on the side.”

Kimber Lanning said one of the smallest grants went to an arts organization on the Navajo Nation, “Their application was only $2,000 but that $2,000 afforded them six acoustic guitars and they were actually able to start a guitar class as an after school program and that’s transformative. It doesn’t have to be a massive amount of money but we need to shine a light on the fantastic programs we have across our state.”

More than a million dollars will land in northeastern Arizona where St. John’s, the Apache County seat, will house a workforce innovation center. But getting a grant is only the beginning. 

“Just because you have a bunch of money tomorrow doesn’t mean you’re going to be effective with that money nor does it mean that when that money runs out you’re going to be in a position to demonstrate using data and stories how you effectively created change which is the only way to re-win a grant is if you’re successful the first time,” Lanning said.

What's next

The Arizona Economic Recovery Center will soon launch a navigator program to help grant recipients plan long-term, including the Prescott Farmers Market. 

“I think we’ll learn a lot,” Yetman said.

The market will use nearly $350,000 in U.S. Department of Agriculture funds to test a food hub downtown. It’ll have a community kitchen for meal preparation and a wholesale operation for Yavapai County farmers. 

“Farmers are like at capacity with what they can do and trying to get them to expand their knowledge to set up wholesaling accounts is just asking too much and so we realized that what we could do is be kind of the liaison and we can help them get their food into restaurants,” Yetman said.

By setting up the wholesale system, farmers can focus on what they do best — growing fruits and vegetables — while increasing business with restaurants that can highlight more fresh local food.

In addition to grant writing, reviewing and editing, the Arizona Economic Recovery Center offers project management, budget guidance, and strategic planning services for qualified entities.

Who qualifies?

  • Meet theArizona Commerce Authority’s definition of rural or be in a low-to-moderate income urban census tract.
  • Do not have a dedicated staff for development.
  • Are interested in applying for work that supports a regional or local strategic plan. (if this doesn’t exist, call for a free consultation).
  • Have a proposed application that includes at least 3 partnering organizations.
  • Have an idea that can be initiated before 2023.

Free consultations are available to small-business owners that need help with any kind of application. 

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As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.