Signs point to recovery: Stimulus funds give $60M boost to area economy

Bob Lassen, an employee with Sunflower Concrete, Lawrence, applies cement-curing spray to a new median strip on North Second Street on the north side of the Kansas River Bridge on Friday. The work being done at the intersection of North Second and Elm streets is one of several area projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the federal stimulus program.

On the north end of the Kansas River bridge, a sign lets drivers know just who is footing the bill for the multimillion-dollar construction project at North Second and Locust streets.

“Project funded by the ARRA,” the sign reads.

No similar signs are seen, however, hanging from the necks of four staff members at the Lawrence Boys and Girls Club or a group of artists who teach at Van Go Mobile Arts.

But their work, too, is being funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the federal stimulus program — which so far has awarded some $202 billion across the United States.

As of the end of March, more than $60 million in federal funds has come to Douglas County. That money has generated or helped maintain about 150 jobs, according to ARRA reports.

Along with fixing roads and building sidewalks, Recovery Act money has been used in less obvious places, such as $33,000 to fund a position at the Lawrence Art Center to oversee art exhibits. The Willow Domestic Violence Center received $34,000 to replace a roof and install new carpeting in its women’s shelter. And $19,000 was spent so the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office could replace its aging automated external defibrillators. The portable devices are used to emit electric shocks to the heart when someone goes into cardiac arrest.

Almost 130 grants or contracts have been awarded in Douglas County.

“It’s been extremely beneficial,” Van Go Mobile Arts executive director Lynne Green said of the $50,000 grant the nonprofit received to help keep eight artist teaching positions afloat. “It’s kind of prefect. The money was designed to stimulate and keep jobs in place and that is exactly what we used it for.”

KU’s funding

Nowhere is the diverse use of stimulus money more evident than at Kansas University. The KU Center for Research received $42.3 million. A good chunk of the money has been funneled through the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health for research in the biomedical field.

But there have been other grants, too. Money is being used to research ways to stop violence against women and to support jobs in the arts at the Lied Center.

The Kansas Geological Survey received more than $4 million, its largest federal grant ever, to explore ways to pump carbon dioxide underground to reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

Several grants have been awarded for researching glacier melt in Greenland. The largest, $2.1 million, is being funded through NASA and will develop radar instruments that help scientists determine what is underneath the ice sheets.

“It’s an excellent snapshot of the variety of science and engineering research at KU,” said Kevin Boatright, director of communications for KU’s Office of Research and Graduate Studies.

Along with research, ARRA money will be used for construction projects. A $12 million grant will help pay to build a $21.5 million research building for the School of Engineering. More than $4 million of stimulus money will be used to upgrade Nichols Hall.

City gets more than $8M

The city of Lawrence also has seen a substantial boost from ARRA money — to the tune of $8.4 million

ARRA money is covering $2 million of the $3 million cost to improve the intersection at North Second and Locust streets. Stimulus money is also picking up the tab for the $946,000 project to repave New York Street with brick and the $800,000 cost to replace a sidewalk along Clinton Parkway between Wakarusa Drive and the South Lawrence Bypass.

Lawrence Public Works Director Chuck Soules knows that some people question why the city is spending money building sidewalks and repaving brick streets when there are roads in dire need of repair. But he said the city asked for money in areas that the federal government was funding — such as historic preservation and trails.

“If we didn’t apply for some of those things, the money was still going to go there. But it was just going to go somewhere else,” Soules said.

Along with road projects, the city received $858,600 in an energy efficiency grant, $648,000 for affordable housing and almost $3 million for its public transit system.

Lawrence “did very well” in landing its share of stimulus money, Soules said.

But some in the region have seen little of the money. With the exception of a law enforcement grant, Douglas County hasn’t seen a cent of Recovery Act money.

Administrator Craig Weinaug said the county was too small for the set amount of entitlement money that came down from the state and too big for the money the state set aside for smaller municipalities.

The county had applied for grants that would cover road improvement projects, but didn’t receive any money. The county went ahead and did the projects without the federal funding. Still, Weinaug said the extra money would have been nice.

“That would have freed up money to do other projects,” he said.

The county did indirectly benefit from a Lawrence grant that is being used to create a position for a sustainability coordinator. As part of the $858,000 energy efficiency grant, the new sustainability coordinator will work at both the city and the county. The rest of the money will be used to replace downtown street lights and to make energy efficiency upgrades at the Lawrence Public Library.

Job creation, retention

Under federal guidelines, it’s up to contractors to report how many jobs the projects create or retain. So the city of Lawrence hasn’t kept a tally on how many jobs its $8.4 million in grants has produced.

As of the end of March, the ARRA website states four jobs were created from the work at the intersection of North Second Street. For the New York Street project no jobs are listed as being created and .05 jobs are reported for the sidewalk improvement project along Clinton Parkway.

The benefit to employment has a far greater effect than what is listed, Soules said. The combination of the Clinton Parkway and New York Street projects has kept about 50 people employed. And, the construction at the North Lawrence intersection has provided about 40 jobs.

Without the stimulus money, Soules said the only work the public works department would be doing is repaving roads.

“It is definitely retaining a lot of jobs and they are good-paying jobs,” he said.

At KU, the stimulus money for research has resulted in 45 jobs. Most of those positions are being filled by graduate, post-doctoral students and lab technicians, not the professors leading the research.

At Clinton Lake, where the Corps of Engineers funded more than $4.2 million worth of improvement projects, 2.12 jobs were saved or created. But Sue Gehrt with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said ARRA reports don’t list the work that is subcontracted out or what is done by general contractors who cover multiple states.

Still, the stimulus money is allowing work to be done around Clinton Lake, such as paving roads, upgrading restrooms and replacing picnic tables, that would never have been accomplished otherwise.

“We barely pay the staff to keep the place running,” Gehrt said. “We rarely get any kind of extra money.”

For some area nonprofits, there is little doubt the stimulus money saved jobs.

“During a difficult economy, it would have been impossible for us to have funded that position,” Lawrence Arts Center executive director Susan Tate said of the exhibition director position the ARRA money covered.

Before receiving the ARRA money, officials at the Boys and Girls Club thought they might have to reduce hours and services for children. With $48,000 in stimulus money, the nonprofit was able to cover one-full time position and three part-time positions, which are filled by college students.

“Because of those dollars, we didn’t have to cut back,” executive directory Janet Murphy said.