Landmark buildings key to Portland’s black, Irish histories make the cut on funding list

Posted April 09, 2012, at 8:28 p.m.
Last modified April 09, 2012, at 11:10 p.m.
Maine Irish Heritage Center's home is the former St. Dominic's Church at 34 Gray Street in Portland.
Maine Irish Heritage Center's home is the former St. Dominic's Church at 34 Gray Street in Portland. Buy Photo
Shipyard Brewing is located at 86 Newbury Street in Portland.
Shipyard Brewing is located at 86 Newbury Street in Portland. Buy Photo
The historic Abyssinian Meeting House at 73-75 Newbury Street in Portland.
The historic Abyssinian Meeting House at 73-75 Newbury Street in Portland. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — Restoration of the historic Abyssinian Meeting House and upgrades to the Maine Irish Heritage Center were among the 25 Portland projects given the green light for grant funding Monday night as the City Council cemented its annual Community Development Block Grant priority list.

In a unanimous vote, the council chose a plan that moves a proposed street light project for Cumberland Avenue to the city’s capital improvements budget, freeing up nearly $250,000 in CDBG money to be distributed to the two historic buildings.

Monday’s vote ended months of uncertainty for local CDBG applicants, whose projects hung in the balance through a lengthy vetting process, which included application rankings by a city committee and subsequent public hearings.

Competition among nonprofit organizations and project organizers continued to grow more intense this year as the federal pot of money that fuels the CDBG program keeps shrinking. Nearly 40 applications were submitted to the city, adding up to more than $3.1 million in requests for shares of the city’s allotment of less than $1.8 million in CDBG funding.

Last year, Portland received a CDBG allocation of more than $2.2 million. Nationwide, federal funding for CDBG programs was reduced for fiscal year 2013 by 13 percent, according to the city’s CDBG committee, and that drop-off followed a 16.5 percent cut in the previous year.

Committee members scored the plans according to how they fit in with the city’s development priorities and the applicant’s ability to finish the proposed job, among other criteria.

“The national decrease in Community Development Block Grant funding has made this a difficult funding year,” City Manager Mark Rees wrote to city councilors in a memo distributed before Monday’s meeting, in part. “Despite the high quality and worthiness of applicants, there is simply not enough funding to assist all who applied.”

Rees provided the council with two alternative plans for divvying up the city’s expected fiscal year 2013 CDBG money. In one, the Cumberland Avenue street light project’s entire $248,860 cost was included in the priority projects list, effectively bumping continued work on the Abyssinian Meeting House and Maine Irish Heritage Center from the roster and cutting the amount available to pay for window and frontage repairs at the Catherine Morrill Day Nursery to less than half the nearly $190,000 requested.

In the second option he provided the councilors, Rees proposed moving the street light project into the city’s capital improvements plan, allowing the council to fully fund the nursery work and an $18,000 handicapped accessibility project at the Maine Irish Heritage Center, which is housed in the landmark former St. Dominic’s Church on Gray Street, and partial funding for the Abyssinian Meeting House work.

“This helps with our important goal of expanding access to everyone to what this important center has to offer,” Richard Hanley, vice president of the Maine Irish Heritage Center, told the council Monday night.

The Committee to Restore the Abyssinian Meeting House is in line for $117,987 toward its restoration project, down from the requested amount of $250,000, but still places it as the highest CDBG funding allocation among the development projects listed.

The meeting house on Newbury Street was the third African American meeting house in the country when it was built in 1820s and was Portland’s public school for black children in the 19th century. The Abyssinian Meeting House is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s the oldest building in the eastern waterfront, and we need your help,” Leonard Cummings, chairman of the Abyssinian committee, told the council Monday night. “We need your support through the Community Development Block Grant program.”

The development project due to receive the second most in CDBG grant funding, according to the list approved by the council Monday, is one to cross the Libbytown Trail over the Fore River Parkway, which carries a price tag of $117,300.

Development projects and social services projects were divided into different lists in their scoring and presentation to the council. The city’s community policing program and Health Care for the Homeless behavioral health program were listed for $123,015 and $109,928 in CDBG funds on the social services list, respectively.

Local homelessness and hunger prevention organization Preble Street is in line to receive $61,096 for soup kitchen building improvements, $50,000 for emergency food programs, $40,000 for its resource center and $30,000 for its new Lighthouse Teen Shelter, but its application for $30,000 for its Florence House for homeless women was bypassed.

Opportunity Alliance proposed two projects that were not included in the final priorities list, including $31,249 for the Parkside Neighborhood Center and $24,934 for its Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions program.

The Frannie Peabody Center, which provides housing and support for those battling HIV/AIDS and was awarded nearly $3.8 million in federal grant money announced last week, also did not make the council’s final CDBG list in its application for $40,000.

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