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Sustainability vs. economy?

Some sustainability groups are concerned that a proposed scoring system for winning city economic development, cultural and sustainability grants could put them at a competitive disadvantage.

But the Ashland City Council could adjust the scoring system before it goes into effect to help level the playing field.

City officials expect to divide up almost $200,000 worth of the coveted grants this spring during the annual budgeting process.

Past winners range from the Ashland Independent Film Festival to Rogue Farm Corps to Ashland's Bed and Breakfast Network. Requests for money always far exceed the amount of grant funding available.

In past years, Ashland Citizens Budget Committee members reviewed grant requests and then allocated money.

This spring, they likely will use a scoring system to rank groups before deciding how much money to give each organization.

The city already uses scoring when reviewing bids for contracts for infrastructure work and other projects.

But Mayor John Stromberg, a sustainability proponent, said the proposed grant scoring system does not allow sustainability groups to win enough points.

"The scope of sustainability has been drastically narrowed," Stromberg said during an Ashland City Council meeting earlier this month.

A group could win a maximum of 70 points for meeting five economic development criteria, such as boosting jobs in town, and 80 points for meeting five cultural development criteria, such as increasing the number of cultural events.

The proposed scoring system has only three criteria — such as conserving resources — for sustainability, and groups can win only 40 points in that category.

"We need a strong sustainability component in these grants," said Ashland City Councilwoman Carol Voisin.

Groups also can win only 40 points for meeting three tourism criteria, such as increasing hotel stays.

Some might argue that the tourism category is linked to economic development. Also, the city gives separate grant funding to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Ashland Chamber of Commerce to promote tourism.

City Councilman Greg Lemhouse proposed adding sustainability criteria so that groups can win the same number of points for sustainability, economic development and cultural development.

Ideally, City Councilman Russ Silbiger said a group will submit a grant proposal that scores points in all three categories.

"The best grantees we have are ones that earn points in more than one category," he said.

Perennial grant favorite THRIVE, which promotes local food production and local food events, is one such group that could score points in all categories.

Rogue Valley Farm to School Executive Director Tracy Harding said her group is working on long-term sustainability.

She said the organization, which has won two city grants in past years, might not be able to win economic development points right away for increasing employment or boosting the number of local businesses.

"We would like to be able to continue to compete for these funds," Harding said.

Rogue Farm Corps, a first-time city grant recipient last year, is engaged in a long-term effort to train the next generation of farmers, said Stuart O'Neill, the group's executive director.

It could take years for the group to show it created jobs, he said.

Southern Oregon Sustainable Business Network Co-Director Lynn Blanche argued for keeping sustainability as a significant component in the city grant process.

She said sustainable local businesses reduce their costs for water and garbage service, are more profitable and efficient, and keep money circulating in the community.

"Sustainability is critical to economic development," Blanche said.

The City Council will discuss adding sustainability criteria and increasing scoring for sustainability during a study session at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21, at the Ashland Civic Center, 1175 E. Main St. The study session is open to the public.

The council will have a closed-door executive session at 6:30 p.m. to discuss another matter, then begin the regular council meeting at 7 p.m. The city grants issue is scheduled to be an agenda item during the regular meeting.

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