Security barriers, business district improvements, addressing health disparities – those are some of the varied yet essential needs still on the table as Evanston City Council members decide where to allocate the city’s fast-disappearing federal COVID-19 recovery funds.

City staff recommended the council discuss and prioritize the use of the allocated funds in a discussion at the start of the March 13 council meeting.

No decisions were made.

Evanston was notified in May 2021 it would be receiving federal American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds designed to help cities recover from COVID.

To date, the council has allocated roughly $36.78 million of its $43.17 million allocation, said Sarah Flax, the city’s Interim Director of Community Development, in a memo. 

Meanwhile, potential projects and programs that have been proposed for ARPA funding total $8.16 million, approximately $1.77 million more than the $6.39 million still available, according to Flax’s estimate.

Some of the programs still up for consideration include:

Meridian Barricades ($613,000). City staff is recommending the city purchase 60 anti-vehicle barriers as well as one gate and some accessories, which can be installed with heavy equipment. The barriers can be used during special events and other city operations, officials say, where the potential threat of a vehicle causing harm, intentionally or unintentionally, may be present. The purchase of this equipment is recommended by the Parks and Recreation, Police, Fire and Public Works Departments.

Business District Improvements ($3 million). A key recommendation in the recently issued Evanston Thrives Business Strategy and Implementation Plan. The plan calls for upgrades to the city’s individual business districts, including streetscape improvements, canopies, tables and chairs for outdoor events, parklets, signage and murals.

Addressing Health Inequities in Lower-income Neighborhoods ($1.5 million)An Evanston Health Department report in October 2022 found “a clear and consistent pattern of racial and neighborhood-level inequity across our health and quality of life data. Notably, the health disparities and concerning trends identified in high rates are chronic diseases and economic distress in specified census tracts.”

Protected turn/crosswalk at Grant Street and Grey Avenue.

Safety Improvements to Crosswalks ($300,000). Staff is reviewing and updating the city’s crosswalk policy to potentially upgrade some existing crosswalks with additional infrastructure, similar to what is currently installed at crosswalks immediately adjacent to school property and parks, making them more identifiable to vehicles turning into those areas.

Additional Funding for Living Room Capital Project ($350,000). The “Living Room” project was an early recipient of ARPA funds — with council members approving $900,000 in COVID recovery funds to establish a Living Room location near Ascension St. Francis Hospital, operated by Turning Point as a safe, staffed alternative to hospital emergency rooms.

Flax wrote that the remaining money  “is insufficient to complete the build out of the Mental Health Living Room facility due to inflation and supply chain issues. Additional funding would expedite the program launch and provide residents with mental health crises an alternative to hospital emergency rooms or calling 911.”

Council Member Clare Kelly (1st Ward) said she had written an email proposing that $2 million in ARPA funds go to support the recovery of small businesses.

“Many cities in the Midwest spent anywhere from seven to 12% of their ARPA funds on small businesses … they are the the heart and soul of our neighborhoods,” she argued.

“They represent about 50% of the workforce and to bolster the businesses, to help them help them get over that hump after COVID, means a lot to our city means a lot to them – it really is a big economic boost,” she said.

Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward) was one of the few council members who spoke for supporting the meridian barriers.

“I  think we need to do more special events in the city that will help us build back from COVID downtown and elsewhere,” he said. “And I think we have the possibility of leasing those and renting those [barriers] out to other municipalities for some income to help offset that expense.”

The alternative is dump trucks and snowplows – and so I really think this is a much better idea.”

Council Member Thomas Suffredin (6th Ward) spoke in support of the crosswalk safety idea, which he had originally proposed. There are several places around the city that can be safer, he said, “and in the context of all the money we have it is not a big expenditure.”

Council Member Bobby Burns (5th Ward) said he supported addressing health disparities. “We haven’t made any ARPA allocations to address the sobering data that highlighted all the health inequities, particularly in low-income areas.”

Burns said he has been working on a program with Flax and the city’s health director, Ike Ogbo, to create “very specific interventions to try to improve health outcomes that we know are are leading to early deaths and other issues in the community.”

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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