Berlin Affordable Housing Project Denied Critical Grant

BERLIN – The Cannery Village workforce housing endeavor was denied Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, supporters learned last week, a potentially serious blow to the construction schedule.

Supporters learned of the denial last Friday.

“The Cannery Village application was denied,” reported Berlin Administrative Director Linda Bambary to the Berlin Town Council Monday night.

CDBG applications must be made through official government entities like towns or counties.

The implications of the CDBG money denial are unclear.

“We have to be worried about it, being realistic. When you’re dealing with the government, you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Frank Gunion, president of the Berlin Community Development Corporation (BCDC). “If we are unable to replace those funds, the schedule would change and we’d have to redo the timetable.”

Don Bibb, of the Talbot County Housing Authority, which is a partner in the Cannery Village effort, was not available for an interview.

Cannery Village organizers still hope to break ground on the project in the fall with state support to find different sources of money.

“We are being told by the state that there is still a high level of support for the project from the state offices,” Gunion said.

Cannery Village is being watched statewide as a demonstration of a new concept in workforce housing, combining affordable homes with green building.

“We are plowing new territory here. We are trying to build not only workforce housing that is affordable, but we are also trying to build in an environmentally advantageous way,” Gunion said.

The state has said it will meet with BCDC and local representatives to explore alternate funding streams for the workforce housing project. No date has been set for that meeting.

“There are other potential sources for funding to replace the grant,” said Gunion.

None of the Cannery Village supporters know why the CDBG application was rejected.

“I’m sure they have more requests for funding than they can fund,” Gunion said. “When you apply for grant money, there are just so many people applying for money you don’t know what will happen.”

In a meeting with the Berlin Mayor and Council earlier this spring, Cindy Stone, director of the CDBG program, assured the town that the Cannery Village project had a good chance at being funded if resubmitted for consideration by the mid-May deadline.

When contacted this week, Stone would not discuss the exact reasons for the failure of the Cannery Village application, saying that her agency had not yet met with the town of Berlin for a debriefing.

“We received $11 million in application requests and we were able to award $5.4 million. So obviously, the odds there are not great. Everyone has a 50-50 chance,” said Stone.

The CDBG rating system, a 150-point scale, puts projects that improve health and safety, and projects with an impact across a large segment of the population, higher on the scale than other requests.

“Bad water, bad sewer, housing rehabilitation, those are going to rate higher than a project for new housing,” Stone said. “Some years it’s very hard for projects that are new and exciting to compete against health hazards.”

One regional project that received funding, the Wicomico Senior Center, serves thousands.

“That’s not to say that projects that didn’t get funded weren’t important,” Stone said.

There is more demand for CDBG funds this year with the worsening economy, she said.

According to Stone, there were more CDBG funds available this year than expected. Originally, $4.8 million was set aside, but with grant recaptures and some repayments, that amount went up to $5.4 million. That was not enough to respond to all requests, however.

The town of Berlin had another project up for CDBG funds, the new multi-purpose building on Flower St., but the town withdrew the request.

The grant was to be used for project planning, but supporters realized that the planning is essentially complete. Shore Up, the non-profit that uses the building extensively for programs like Head Start, knows what it wants to do with the new building, Bambary said. In the next round of CDBG funding, the project will ask for design and construction money instead.

Cannery Village supporters have a more complex task, and are still working out the implications.

“We just don’t have the information to know what all this means yet. I’m reluctant to speculate a lot about it,” said Gunion. “We’ve got to take a couple of weeks to sort it out.”

The next step for the Cannery Village project has not been determined, but there is no doubt that the workforce housing initiative will continue.

“Sooner or later, we will get there,” Gunion said.