On Wednesday, the Bond Commission released funding for the Small Town Economic Assistance Program for the first time since 2016. The commission designated $15 million toward economic development across Connecticut.
“We had been pressing for the release of STEAP grants for some time, but certainly weren’t expecting it,” said Betsay Gara, the executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns. “It was a pleasant surprise.”
The program, known as STEAP, is the primary source of funding available to small and rural towns throughout the state for projects that can help contribute to economic development. Projects include sidewalks, streetscapes, reconstruction of public parks or playgrounds and revitalization of historic villages or downtowns.
Since the program began in 2005, the state has provided about $20 million of grant funding for about 12 projects each year.
“Since 2016, the Malloy administration didn’t approve any new projects, so the program has been stymied,” Gara said.
Unlike other grant programs, like for example the Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Program, Gara said that STEAP grants were never reliable.
“Towns would be surprised that they received them and because they hadn’t heard they might have gone ahead with the project themselves,” Gara said. “In other cases, applications sat unanswered for years and projects never moved forward. There was a lot of frustration on the local level on whether or not they would ever get them.”
Given the pressure to keep property taxes low, most small towns will not take on large-scale projects without outside grant funding, Gara said, which is why grant programs like STEAP and historic preservation grants are important for improving and maintaining small towns.
The application process and procedure for the new grant allocation has yet to be announced. According to Martin Heft at the Office of Policy and Management, an announcement will be coming in January.
“It will be on our website in January. All municipalities should keep a lookout there,” Hest said.
Gara said that few towns will decide whether to apply until there is more clarity regarding eligibility for the latest round grant funding.
“There has been some criticism to tighten eligibility requirements to focus on economic development specifically,” Gara said. “People say things like sidewalks or a streetscape are not as important, but they really are. They make the streets more attractive and viable for businesses.”
Past projects include a $250,000 sidewalk construction in Moodus Village in East Haddam and a $500,000 sidewalk and parking lot construction project in downtown East Lyme.
Groups like the Council of Small Towns are advocating for an additional $15 to $20 million to be released in the upcoming legislative session. Whether or not that is likely, however is unclear. Heft declined to comment on the subject.