Iowa communities have completed fantastic building rehabilitation projects in their respective downtowns. Many have benefitted from state and federal incentive programs. In the past year, I have participated in the scoring process for approximately 200 grant applications for the Community Catalyst Building Rehabilitation grant, the Main Street Challenge Grant, and the Downtown Housing Grant. Some communities have done particularly well. Once they have been successful, they have repeated their good approach. I will use the Catalyst Grant as my example. The program has been up and running for five years, and we have seen trends with applications that are favorably scored and likewise, with applications that were not funded.
Here are 10 tips for building rehab grant writers (or for any grant):
- Take advantage of pre-grant information. Come to the application workshops. Look at online guides and grant information. Do not assume you know the programs inside and out. Details related to grant programs and scoring rarely stay exactly the same. Make sure the grant writer, City and building owner (if different) are on the same page and both know what is being submitted.
- Set your project up in a clear, easy to read manner. The first thing a grant scorer reads should not be, “Four units will be added upstairs and tuckpointing…” A scorer wants to know the importance of the building, the project, and the impact it will have on your downtown. For example, “The historic Ramsey Building on the main intersection of downtown X has a long history as a retail hub. The building has been underutilized for twenty years, but new developers have purchased the building and are planning a total rehab for residential and commercial space.” Get to the scope of work details after setting up the project’s importance.
- Submit designs. This could be the number one reason a potentially good project goes from the top of the list to the bottom or from the bottom to unfunded. If you are doing residential units, submit floorplans. If you are doing any work to the façade, submit a drawing and describe the improvements in the text. Good designs are always helpful, but something is better than nothing. It is critical for scorers to see exactly what your vision for the building is and how appropriate those changes will be.
- We want to see personal investment in the project ... the more the better. The Catalyst Grant does not have a prescribed local match, but to be competitive it is needed. Other grants do have a minimum match requirement, but if you have only met the minimum match, you run the risk of being edged out by other good projects with more local commitment. Financial commitment by the city is required for some grants and highly recommended by others.
- Is your funding secured? Money geeks like myself look at this first. If you have sources of income called “grant applied for”, that component of your funding is not secure. If you have received another grant, show us the award letter. If you have a bank loan, please also submit a specific letter from your banker that shows the amount of loan you have been approved for. If your funding sources show that the building owner has personal funds of $80,000 going to the project, show proof of that in some way, perhaps a letter from the owner.
- Be realistic with your cost estimates. As we have seen a lot of grant applications, we have a general idea of what it costs to add a one-bedroom apartment unit. An application that shows extremely low estimates can bring out skepticism about the project’s feasibility. Add contingency funding in your budget. Projects rarely come in at or under budget.
- The impact of your project compared to other applications/projects is extremely important. Be specific about what this completed project will mean to your downtown. Location could be important. A project in an area with high density will certainly have more potential to catalyze other projects. A building that is critical to the strength of your downtown also has a greater appeal to grant scorers. Historic, landmark buildings that are being pegged for restoration with storefront commercial possibilities and housing upstairs always get our attention. Kickstarting rehabilitation work in a community that has not seen much downtown development is also intriguing. A project that addresses a building in its entirety instead of a partial rehab (for example just a first-floor improvement) is a good idea too. Will the completed building have a use that is beneficial to the downtown? Will people live upstairs? Will people work in your building? Will a business have daytime hours in your building?
- Proofread your completed application. Did you answer the questions? Avoid redundancies. Make sure your answers to the questions are unique to the question asked. The longest applications are not always the best applications. Be concise and to the point, but do not go too far in the other direction with bullet points that do not provide all the information we need.
- Do not take photos for granted. Show us good ones. It is important for us to see your building…. what it looked like historically, what it looks like now (interior and exterior) and what you are planning to do. Did, I mention, we need designs/plans?
- If you are not successful with your application, find out why. Contact us. The scorers’ comments can help you be successful next time around.
The Iowa Downtown Resource Center’s Main Street Iowa program recently partnered with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s Jane Nolan Goeken to facilitate a hands-on grant writing workshop.
The workshop explored various strategies to local public and private funding sources and provided instruction and tips on planning projects and writing successful grant applications. The handouts and exercises presented during the workshop are available for download here. We hope these resources will assist you, strengthen your grant writing skills and result in more funded projects in your community.