Mini-grants are mighty neighborly

The vintage lights in the Field Club neighborhood were made possible in part by a Peter Kiewit Foundation grant.

In the mid-1990s, the Peter Kiewit Foundation saw a need for helping nonprofit neighborhood organizations. Foundation leaders had read about mini-grants to neighborhoods in cities such as Kansas City and decided it was a worthwhile project for Omaha, said Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, executive director of the foundation. “It was created as a specific program within Peter Kiewit grant-giving, targeting specific needs of neighborhood associations,” she said. After four or five years, the program went on hiatus, Ziegenbein said, adding that didn't mean anything was wrong. It was just a normal pause to assess the grants' effectiveness.

In 2005, the grant program resumed. “The time was right and there was renewed interest,” she said. “It was a good opportunity.”

There are several reasons for giving these grants, Ziegenbein said. They activate residents, help sustain pride of place, and help sustain and stabilize the neighborhood grid, which historically has been effective in Omaha.

“One of Omaha's hallmarks is the distinct personalities of our neighborhoods and the pride of place they have created for generations of our citizens,” Ziegenbein said.

Something that can't be measured, she said, is how the grants empower citizens, encourage resident participation and build leadership at a grass-roots level.

The goal for a neighborhood association can be to add to or enhance the neighborhood or it can be to target and get rid of a particular blight in the area.

The Peter Kiewit Foundation grants are important for nonprofit neighborhood associations that are just getting started and have limited opportunities for funding, said Liz Moldenhauer, president of the Benson Neighborhood Association board and program assistant for Omaha's Neighborhood Center. “It helps them get a start.”

The Neighborhood Center and organizations such as the South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance or Midtown Neighborhood Alliance will help new or small groups with the application for these grants and others. That is part of the reason they exist.

An important element of the Kiewit grants is they require matching funds be raised by the association. By making the organization raise funds and support, the people involved take ownership of the project, Ziegenbein said. “It gives them a sense of pride. It gives impetus to raise more, and can invite bigger donations.”

Moldenhauer said raising the matching funds hasn't been a problem for the Benson Neighborhood Association so far. She urges all neighborhood associations to work with their boards to set up a strategic plan every year, even if they aren't applying for these grants. But having a plan in place to raise the matching grant funds is essential, she said.

Mike Battershell, president of both the South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance and the Hanscom Park Neighborhood Association, which won a $7,500 Kiewit grant in 2011 to help pay for the Hanscom Bark Park dog park, said raising matching funds or meeting the conditions of a challenge grant isn't always easy.

“It can be both a blessing and a curse,” he said. But he agreed that the challenge “makes you work hard.”

Every year, between 20 and 30 applications come in for the Kiewit grants. There is no restriction on how much money can be given out each year, but the grants are never more than $10,000 per organization.

The projects must be completed between the recipient announcement in March and the end of September, Ziegenbein said.

The March announcement allows plenty of time for those who are planting to get the plants in the ground and ready to go by growing season. The September rule prevents procrastination on a project.

“We've been impressed and humbled by the neighborhood associations and how they can bring things in on budget,” Ziegenbein said. “It's reaffirming of what concerned citizens can do.”

The grants are good for an organization as long as “you know what the rules are,” Battershell said. The foundation has realistic parameters, he added, and it's good at explaining what is expected or helping any way it can.

“It's a great community partnership.”

Over the years, projects have included decorative banners along Leavenworth Street, Park Avenue and Turner Boulevard, and in the South Omaha Burlington Road neighborhood; historic street signs along Maple Street in the Benson neighborhood; historic light fixtures in Field Club; bronze signs in the Dundee-Memorial Park area; lights for Bemis Park's tennis courts to enhance public safety; landscaping in public spaces in the Gifford Park, Field Club, Deer Ridge, Country Club, Metcalfe Park, Concord Square, Keystone and Leawood Southwest areas; picnic tables and barbecues at Spring Lake Park; public spaces tree-planting for the Midtown Neighborhood Alliance; a concrete walkway and other improvements in Pulaski Park; plants for land at the intersection where Fontenelle Boulevard and the Northwest Radial come together; and area cleanups.

Through 2012, the foundation has handed out a total of $285,091, Ziegenbein said.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1067,

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