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The Sugar City Grain Company elevator towers over Sugar City, the easternmost town in Crowley County. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Between the state and private prisons, the sheriff’s office, schools and a growing cannabis cultivation industry, there are plenty of workers who could make Crowley County their home. 

Except there aren’t enough places for them to live. And, as the supply of houses and apartments has declined in the rural county east of Pueblo, few developers are interested in building. 

“Investors and contractors aren’t willing to take a chance to put housing up,” Crowley County Commissioner Blaine Arbuthnot said. 

Now Crowley and five other rural southeastern counties that have struggled to keep residents and workers have plans to use money from the American Rescue Plan Act to help build 127 new homes.

Crowley, along with Baca, Bent, Kiowa, Prowers and Otero counties, are putting a total of $650,000 in federal stimulus money toward initial development costs, such as land surveys and building permits. By helping bring down costs, they hope to entice a private developer to build workforce housing across southeastern Colorado. 

The project, which breaks ground in April, will bring four single-family homes and 10 duplexes to Ordway, Crowley’s county seat, and two single-family homes and five duplexes to Olney Springs. The county probably needs five times that number of new homes to accommodate commuting workers, Arbuthnot said, but it’s a promising start for a region starved for economic investment.

“Our hope is that the (home) values will have come up enough that individual contractors and investors will see there’s an opportunity to make some money here,” Arbuthnot said. “Government shouldn’t really be building, but hopefully we’ll get the process started and let the private sector come in.”

The Crowley County Correctional Facility near Olney Springs is shown in this Jan. 26, 2022 photo. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The wave of federal spending has spurred some new momentum. The workforce housing project got started in part with funding from the first federal coronavirus stimulus bill, the CARES Act, which helped the Southeastern Colorado Economic Development District hire new staff to develop the idea with the Southeast Colorado Enterprise Development. 

With the exception of Crowley and Kiowa, which saw population growth of 1.7% and 3.4% respectively over the past decade, the other four counties in the state’s southeastern corner have all lost population.

Young people, families and working professionals are the hardest to keep, said Tyler Gibson, mayor of the town of Springfield. With so little housing stock, landlords can get away with renting run-down trailers for $1,200 a month, he said. 

The town of 1,325 will get a new subdivision of up to 15 homes – both pre-sale and rental units – from the workforce housing project. Gibson hopes it will help jumpstart the region’s housing market and begin to reverse the trend of people leaving the southeastern plains.  

“It’s going to be a godsend to Springfield,” said Gibson, noting that the Southeast Colorado Hospital District, one of the region’s largest employers, will likely get dibs on rental units for travel nurses and doctors. “These houses are going to be a great asset.” 

A lot of federal dollars to work with

The joint effort is just one example of how Colorado counties are putting nearly $1.3 billion to use from the second federal coronavirus relief bill. Cities and towns also received about $817 million. And that’s on top of billions that state agencies and the Colorado legislature have yet to spend.

Many counties have used their first half of the funds to pay for immediate needs like coronavirus testing programs, PPE for public employees, loans for local businesses and funding for emergency relief programs, like food and cash assistance. The rest of the money will come in a second installment later this year. 

The city and county of Denver, which will receive the most ARPA funding at $308 million, has used its first installment to bring furloughed workers back, cover salaries for 400 positions that had been left vacant and give premium pay to those who worked in-person in 2020. 

The city is also putting that money toward more strategic needs, including $28 million into its affordable housing fund, $4 million to expand outdoor shelter programs for people who are homeless and other shelter and rehousing programs. The one-time aid also went toward grants to arts venues and loans for local nonprofits and funded studies to examine the city’s mental health and substance use safety net. 

DENVER, CO – NOVEMBER 30: Volunteer Alyssa Breda helps move building materials used to support the tents at a new Safe Outdoor Space-Colorado Village Collaborative near the Denver Health medical campus. Several of the new residents who plan to live here will be coming from the Four Winds American Indian Council. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

The city will hold more public meetings and outreach over the next few months to figure out a plan for spending the second $154 million installment. 

Local officials are also taking into account millions in other federal dollars that will be available later this year. State lawmakers have nearly $2.6 billion in ARPA dollars left to spend statewide on issues like economic recovery, affordable housing and behavioral health. State agencies are also expected to receive billions from the bipartisan infrastructure package, although it’s still unclear how local governments can apply for those dollars. 

The challenge for local governments will be to leverage the one-time dollars without creating new costs down the road. 

Jefferson County, which will receive a total of $113 million from the federal legislation, has convened task forces to study how to spend the money effectively on local infrastructure needs and difficult-to-solve issues like mental health care and housing and workforce development. 

That includes ideas like paying for training or certifications to help workers transition into higher paying jobs, and funding programs to combat food insecurity and the county’s housing shortage.

Spending all of their ARPA funding on a broadband infrastructure project, for example, would just make a dent in terms of the total funding the county would need to reach its internet accessibility goals, chief financial officer Stephanie Corbo said. Instead, the county is talking about funding a study so it can identify areas with the worst internet access. 

“Some problems are so big we don’t have the money to go after it,” Corbo said. 

Counties are debating how to use it

Although local governments got the first half of the stimulus funds in July 2021, many are just beginning conversations on how to use their allocation after the U.S. Treasury Department released its final guidance for spending earlier this month. Debate over how to spend the stimulus funds will likely unfold over the next year.

The guidance came with some good news: Local governments can use up to $10 million of their ARPA funds toward general services without having to submit a detailed accounting to the federal government. For small counties like Eagle, which received $10.7 million through the legislation, that means nearly all the money can be used flexibly. 

“It broadens the types of projects that we can use the money for, and it also limits what the Treasury (Department) is going to look at to prove the dollars will be used appropriately,” said Jill Klosterman, finance director for Eagle County, which hasn’t yet decided how to spend its allocation. 

The federal guidance also puts an emphasis on using the money to help populations “disproportionately impacted” by the coronavirus pandemic, and includes approved uses like premium pay for essential workers. 

A pedestrian walks past the North Creek Farms Park basketball court in the Thornton neighborhood of North Creek Farms on January 11, 2022. Photo by Andy Colwell, special to The Colorado Sun

Adams County is discussing whether to fund efforts to promote vaccination against coronavirus among people with low income and whose primary language is not English, including a potential partnership with Tri-County Health. The county has also used some of its $100.5 million stimulus money to beef up staffing for the human services department, which has seen demand grow by a third during the pandemic, and homelessness prevention.

The county is reviewing more than 200 applications for $35 million in grants to local businesses and nonprofit groups. Even if applicants don’t get funding from that pot of money, it’s possible more funding will be available when the county receives its second installment of $50 million later this year.

MORE: Two big — and controversial — Colorado water projects want to tap into DougCo stimulus slosh-funds

In Douglas County, commissioners have received several proposals for how to spend the $68.2 million it received, ranging from a proposal to supply the county with water from the San Luis Valley, funding for a study of the region’s broadband internet needs, suicide prevention and funding to buy up condos and convert the properties into affordable housing for seniors and families.

Jefferson County is also discussing a regional partnership with local cities to pool funds and build a new resource center where unhoused residents can get shelter and be connected to key services. 

It’s all up in the air, but the hope would be to use local ARPA money to build the center and line up other state and federal money to pay for the day-to-day costs of running it, Corbo said. 

Infrastructure improvements 

Governments can also use the stimulus dollars to pay for broadband, water and sewer infrastructure and other capital projects. 

Weld County’s $63 million will help pay for road repairs and existing capital projects that might otherwise have been stalled due to a drop in property tax revenues from oil and gas properties, said finance director Don Warden. That includes finishing the county’s new $40 million jail and a $6 million renovation of a county administration building. 

Crowley County will use some of its $1.2 million stimulus funds to finish a water project that would better deliver water to northern and eastern parts of the county. The project has been planned for two decades, Arbuthnot, the county commissioner, said. 

“The county never had the funds to build it. This gave us the opportunity to do something that’s been needed for some time,” Arbuthnot said. 

A truck passes through the intersection of Main Street and W. Sixth Street where Ordway’s lone traffic light operates. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

El Paso County is putting $6 million toward laying new fiber optic cables in the southern and eastern parts of the county as part of a project to improve broadband internet connectivity. The county will lay a portion of the broadband network and partner with regional utility providers that will do the rest, county administrator Bret Waters said. 

El Paso is also accepting proposals for water infrastructure projects, and is looking to share some of its funding with local water districts, which did not get direct funding through the federal bill. 

Funding long-term projects with the ARPA aid will be challenging, said El Paso County controller Nikki Simmons. Projects must be identified by the end of 2024, and all money must be spent by 2026. That means local governments must figure out how to spend dollars on projects that are normally planned and built over several years. 

“It’s a welcome challenge — we’re absolutely trying to get this money out to the community for a long-lasting impact,” Simmons said.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 12:07 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, to reflect that Adams County commissioners are still deciding how to spend stimulus funds to promote coronavirus vaccination efforts.

Thy Vo previously was a politics reporter for The Colorado Sun.