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Green groups get city grants

The Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee awarded $17,500 in city grants to sustainability groups, easily meeting a City Council goal to earmark at least $12,500 for those types of organizations.

This is the first year the council opened up the economic and cultural development grants to sustainability applicants. The grants are funded with hotel tax revenue.

Arts and economic development groups secured $149,580 in grants, down from $157,079 awarded last year.

Budget Committee members met Wednesday and Thursday to sift through more than $400,000 in grant applications, knowing they had only $167,080 to give out.

Each year, groups ask for more money than is available, but the amount requested ballooned this year with the entrance of 10 sustainability groups into the pool of applicants. Four of those received funding.

The Klamath Bird Observatory was awarded $5,000 to build a bird-watching trail that will serve local education needs and possibly draw out-of-town birders.

"We can use our stronger sustainability groups to draw ecotourists," Mayor John Stromberg said.

The Budget Committee is made up of the mayor, the City Council and residents.

The National Center for Conservation Science and Policy won $5,000 to help with the costs of putting on a conservation conference for scientists.

Rogue Valley Farm to School got $4,000 to connect students to locally grown food, while the John Muir School garden secured $3,500 to help pay for fencing, tools and a greenhouse.

Transition Town Ashland, a group trying to move Ashland toward a sustainable future, walked away empty-handed after asking for thousands of dollars it would give away as micro-grants to individuals and groups.

City rules set the minimum grant amount at $2,500, which makes it hard for people with small projects to apply. Applicants also must have nonprofit group status.

Councilman Greg Lemhouse said he didn't think it was the role of city government to give hotel tax money to Transition Town members, who would then decide how to spend the money.

Councilwoman Carol Voisin was in the minority in wanting to let Transition Town give out micro-grants.

"They're offering us a real opportunity to be an incubator for individuals and groups in our town that are doing exciting things," she said.

Thrive — a perennial favorite with the Budget Committee that promotes local food producers as well as culinary events for residents and tourists — secured a $21,556 grant this year, up from $18,000 last year.

Thrive has qualified for city economic and cultural development grants in previous years because of its economic development work.

Thrive's $21,556 grant could be counted as a sustainability grant, which would increase the $17,500 amount the Budget Committee specifically awarded to sustainability groups this year.

The top grant winner among the economic and cultural development applicants was ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum, which won a $26,556 award, up from $25,000 last year.

The Ashland Independent Film Festival, which has flooded the downtown with film festival fans this weekend, got the second highest award, $26,000, the same as last year.

The Imagine Project, which does historic audio tours, secured its first city grant with a $2,750 award. Another new winner was Ashland Historic Railroad Museum, which plans to put on exhibits about the town's railroading past.

The grant awards must win final approval from the full Budget Committee and then the City Council, but changes have been rare in past years.

Revenue from the hotel tax also funded a $280,000 grant to the Ashland Chamber of Commerce Visitor and Convention Bureau and a $110,000 grant to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The city's coffers will receive $1,058,760 in hotel tax revenue for services such as police and fire.

A handful of Budget Committee members said the city should spend less money on grants and shift more money to the general fund for basic services.

"We need to fund critical things first. I don't think we should give away $167,000 in these budget times," Lemhouse said.

Ashland is required by state law to spend a large chunk of its hotel tax revenue on tourism, but the City Council does have discretion over how to spend part of the money.

Giving grants to economic, cultural and sustainability groups that draw tourists is one way to help meet the state requirement for tourism spending.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.