MANSFIELD -- The end of the conversation Tuesday evening marked just the beginning of the planning process for millions of dollars coming to north central Ohio from the American Rescue Plan.
That was the clear message at the end of an hour-long, wide-ranging online discussion of more than 120 local elected officials, community leaders and residents participating in an event arranged by the Richland County Foundation, Richland Area Chamber & Economic Development and Source Media properties.
The session was headlined by guidance from Allison Goebel, executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center, who encouraged local leaders and residents to "be as strategic as possible" with the funds, which total about $85 million flowing into Richland, Ashland, Knox and Crawford counties in the next two years.
"By that I mean make sure investments work together toward community goals rather than being piecemeal or scattershot," Goebel said. "Achieving this means understanding community goals and developing and implementing a plan with specific projects that work together to meet the goals."
The City of Mansfield, for example, will receive $22 million and Richland County will receive another $23.5 million. Ashland, Knox and Crawford counties will receive approximately $39.5 million combined.
Half the funds will be distributed in the next several weeks, with the second half coming a year from now.
Communities have until 2024 to encumber the funds, which must be spent by the end of 2026, following guidelines established by the U.S. Treasury department.
Jodie Perry, president and CEO of the chamber, said the group hopes to work with the GOPC in future discussions to help create a wide-ranging plan for ARP funds, and other available federal and state money, in the same way the Mansfield Rising downtown reinvestment plan was developed.
Namely, though local involvement, input and discussion, a process that began with a 25-minute question-and-answer session during the online meeting.
"This is really generational money," Perry told the online group, which included mayors, city council members and county commissioners from across the four-county region. "It's a great opportunity ... probably more opportunity than I have ever seen in my career."
During her presentation, Goebel suggested two groupings for projects. She suggested 15 to 20 percent of the funds should be used early for stabilizing local communities while the bulk of the money should be reserved for future investment.
"When we at GOPC think about stabilizing, we mean reimbursing yourself for unexpected costs or revenue shifting you had to do to adequately respond to the pandemic," she said. "Stabilizing also means keeping programs going that help residents and the local government from becoming vulnerable again.
"By investment, we mean this is the time to move on projects and initiatives that you know can have lasting impact in the community, but haven't had the funds to implement," said Goebel, who earned a doctorate degree in anthropology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
"I can only imagine how many pitches local government (officials) have already seen. (But) if they are not in line with the community's priorities, maybe it should be deferred."
The key in deciding what investments to make, she said, can be found in local conversations and plans that were already taking place.
"Priorities will drive strategic-decision making," Goebel said. "When evaluating potential projects or programs, ask whether they will help achieve the community priority faster by building on each other and in service of reaching a clearly defined goal."
With the GOPC since 2010, she strongly suggested the planning process should involve a wide range of perspectives, including businesses, nonprofits and residents.
Goebel said people of color must have a part in the planning process.
"Key representatives of the Black, Hispanic, and Asian communities should be present in these conversations and given the space to provide their perspectives," Goebel said.
"These communities have been hit hard by COVID and may see opportunities and challenges to economic and health recovery that aren't immediately apparent to white participants."
The GOPC leader, who lived in Mansfield periodically from 2005 to 2009 while conducting long-term qualitative research on social relationships in a small-city setting, said communication with the entire community is essential once plans are made.
"Residents may grumble. They may not think these are the right priorities. But everyone will know what the priorities are," she said. "Communicating priorities is about bringing transparency to the decision-making process."
Among those asking questions or commenting were Mansfield City Council President David Falquette, Richland County Commissioner Cliff Mears, Catholic Charities Regional Director Rebecca Owens, Richland County Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Jotika Shetty, Richland County Treasurer Bart Hamilton and North End Community Improvement Collaborative Executive Director Deanna West-Torrence and Downtown Mansfield Inc. CEO Jennifer Gerberick Kime.
Perry, joined in leading the conversation by RCF President Brady Groves and Source Media President Jay Allred, said organizers would be following up with participants in the next couple of weeks.
"We all want to take advantage of the opportunities to move our communities forward," she said. "I believe we are well-positioned to take advantage since we already all work so well together."