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Four area cities get Fed grants

Funds to aid growth, low-income citizens

Chelsea, Lawrence, Salem, and Somerville are getting fresh resources, through a new initiative, to reinvigorate their communities and improve the lives of low-income residents.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston recently announced that the four area communities, along with Fitchburg and Holyoke, had been selected to receive a combined $1.8 million in grants through the Working Cities Challenge, a pilot program to help smaller Massachusetts cities revitalize.

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Lawrence was the only city to receive the maximum $700,000 award. Fitchburg is receiving $400,00; Holyoke, $250,000; Chelsea $225,000; and Salem and Somerville, $100,000 apiece. The Chelsea and Somerville grants are for one year and the others for three years.

The program is aimed at building civic leadership and encouraging collaboration among local governments, businesses, and nonprofits to improve their communities and come up with new ways to meet the needs of economically struggling residents.

“The whole effort grew out of research done by our economists on what factors are crucial to getting a small- to medium-sized city to turn around,” said Prabal Chakrabarti, vice president of community development for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. “The key thing they identified was collaborative leadership.”

Chakrabarti said the bank was also looking for a way to have a more direct impact on community development, noting that its efforts have been mostly focused on research and convening conferences and meetings.

Mayor Daniel Rivera of Lawrence said the city is “thrilled” that its proposal was selected. The funding will go toward the Lawrence Working Families Initiative, an innovative effort among public and private groups to address the extra challenges students face in school when their families are struggling financially.

‘We are thrilled to receive both of these grant awards.’

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The plan calls for a new family resource center that would provide services such as job training and placement, and financial coaching. It would also encourage more parental engagement in the schools.

“It’s well documented that children from poorer families often struggle more academically not because they are less bright or talented but because there are stresses going on in the family that are often economic in nature,” said Jessica Andors, executive director of the nonprofit Lawrence Community Works, which is leading the collaboration with the schools.

“I feel in some ways this is the moment for Lawrence. There are a lot of really amazing things happening in the city,” Andors said, citing the work of the state-appointed school receiver, the election of a new mayor, and the rise of civic engagement. “The grant is both a reflection of that and something that will give all those efforts more momentum.”

The Working Cities Challenge is the first initiative of its kind for any Federal Reserve bank. If it shows progress, Chakrabarti said the Boston Fed plans to extend it throughout New England.

While the bank is leading the project, the funding came from other sources, primarily the state of Massachusetts; Living Cities, a group of 22 of the nation’s largest philanthropies; and the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a coalition of the state’s largest employers. Twenty cities were considered for the initial grants. The state is providing $250,000 through the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, with MassDevelopment providing an additional $250,000, Chakrabarti said.

Chelsea’s grant will help fund an initiative to reduce poverty and improve the quality of life in the low-income Shurtleff-Bellingham neighborhood abutting the downtown. The city is working with two nonprofits, the Neighborhood Developers and Roca.

“The state of Chelsea is very good right now but there are pockets where the advancement is not at the same level,” said City Manager Jay Ash. “The Shurtleff-Bellingham area is one of those pockets and within it . . . there are far too many people who are still struggling to find a way out of poverty.”

Ann Houston, executive director of the Neighborhood Developers, said the initiative is still being organized, but some work is about to begin: Her agency will be offering residents “financial coaches;” a community group plans a cleanliness campaign; Roca is starting a program to support young mothers; and the city is stepping up code enforcement.

Salem will use its grant to improve the low-income Point neighborhood, targeting in particular economic development, workforce training, small business assistance, and grass-roots leadership. The city is teaming with the North Shore Community Development Coalition and other organizations.

The city also was just awarded a related $25,000 grant from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to create a commercial corridor plan for the Point’s Congress Street area. A recently completed Point Vision and Action Plan, developed by the city with extensive neighborhood input, served as the basis for both initiatives.

“We are thrilled to receive both of these grant awards,” Mayor Kimberley L. Driscoll said in a prepared statement. “These funds will help us move forward with recommendations of the Point Vision and Action Plan that we believe will be transformational for this neighborhood and its residents.”

Somerville will use its grant toward reducing high unemployment among low-income 18- to 24-year-olds through “The Pocket Change: Creating a Somerville that Works for All,” an initiative that the city has developed with partner organizations.

The program will help participants develop much-needed job skills through workforce training and short-term and part-time employment. Mobile technology and social media will be used to help participants stay connected with teachers, mentors, and employers.

Amanda Maher, the city’s economic development specialist, said the plan resulted from “a multiyear conversation we’ve been having with the business community to identify what the city could be doing better to support them.”

“One of the things we heard was they would like to be able to hire more local people, but that many, especially 18- to 24-year-olds, don’t have the skills they are looking for,” she said. “What we are trying to do is work with the business community to identify which skills are in highest demand and how to prepare youth with the skills to meet employer demand.”

Edward O’Donnell, the city’s director of economic development, said the initiative is part of an overall effort by Somerville to boost hiring of local people that also includes seeking to create a job-training fund paid for with developer fees.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.
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