HOLYOKE — Mayor Joshua Garcia and Community Development Director Alicia Zoeller sat down for a public discussion through Holyoke Media on the Community Development Block Grant, or CBDG, program to answer questions and explain the work the city accomplishes with the funding.

The two city officials opened the discussion by breaking down the CBDG program and how it is utilized in Holyoke specifically, as well as other communities around the nation.

The Office for Community Development administers these CBDG funds received by the city from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. These funds may be used for a wide variety of activities that improve housing, the living environment and economic opportunities, primarily for persons of low to moderate income.

Garcia said there is a long history of these funds going toward the betterment of the city and added the conversation was taking place during National Community Development Week.

“We want to celebrate all the good CBDG has done and there’s certainly an opportunity here to learn from a lot of lessons learned and how we can take that and pivot where we need to, to be sure that as we move forward and continue to invest these federal dollars in our community to address all sorts of social determinants of health issues, that we’re doing it in a way that’s effective and achieving the outcomes we’re looking to achieve,” Garcia said.

Zoeller said this year was the 50th anniversary of the CBDG program. She added the program directly provides these grants to 1,100 communities across the country. Zoeller also noted that in today’s divisive political climate, this is still one of the few federal programs receiving extensive bipartisan support.

“While we receive funding here in Holyoke, there are a number of rural communities across the country, in the south, the Midwest, who also received Community Development Block Grant funds, and because its so diverse, it makes it a popular program on the federal level,” Zoeller said.

Garcia added Holyoke is categorized as an entitlement community and receives CBDG funding each year, compared to have to apply for the funds.

Eligibility is based on a formula allocation done by the federal government which looks at population, household income, age of housing stock and needs of community. Depending on these factors and the formula is how the money is allocated each year.

“The CBDG program provides a maximum level of flexibility for use in a community,” Zoeller said. “We’re looking in three areas for the program: to ensure decent housing, to create and maintain suitable living environments and to expand economic opportunities.”

Zoeller added this way of conducting business provides the mayor with a creative and flexible approach in meeting the community’s needs.

Garcia talked about how as a lifelong Holyoker, he has seen benefits in his everyday life growing up thanks to the work done by CBDG projects over the years.

Zoeller explained the city has received $1-2 million annually from this program and they are left with three distinct areas where they are permitted to use the funds. The first is that 15% of the annual allocation must go toward public services such as food pantry, daycares, after school programming and other services needed to improve quality of life.

Another 20% off the top is allocated to administrative and planning, leaving the remainder of the funding to go toward housing, infrastructure, parks, sidewalks and other economic development projects.

Garcia said this funding is great for Holyoke’s challenges in housing as it helps continue the efforts made locally.

“There’s a wide range of different housing impacts. The city of Holyoke for as long as I’ve lived here, it’s a compassionate city. It’s a community that’s always done what it could to take care of the most vulnerable populations,” Garcia said. “I like to say that a lot of times we’re more progressive than so-called progressive communities. When communities say no we don’t want that in our backyard, Holyoke’s always found some sort of creative way to try and meet the need, but the need is great.”

Garcia said sometimes it can feel like they have barely scratched the surface of the issue but when taking a step back, he is able to see what they have been able to accomplish.

“You hear this thing were people say, ‘hey, the neighborhoods aren’t improving,’ and we quickly learn it’s not that neighborhoods aren’t improving, people’s lives in neighborhoods are improving and when they do they have achieved a certain economic standard. Then they move out,” Garcia said.

Garcia said with projects like the Cubit building and some of the housing projects the city has done to address housing concerns, the city has the opportunity to be a leader in these types of changes.

“I think Holyoke is in a very unique position to be some sort of a case study or best practice that municipalities across the United States can study,” Garcia said.

Zoeller said the city was set to roll out a five-year comprehensive plan that must be submitted to the federal government detailing a deep dive into the city’s data, where they’re at, demographics in housing, number of people looking for housing, etc., and that helps lay the pathways for future investments.

“The important thing with the planning process is regardless of whether I’m here in two, or three or four years, or if the mayor is here in two years, or three years or four years, the next administration inherits that consolidated plan and it’s a tool for them to use in the process,” Zoeller said.

She added in the coming months there will be community meetings for residents to have the opportunity to give feedback to the city and learn more about the process.

To review the full discussion on the CDBG program and its benefits to the city, visit the Holyoke Media YouTube Channel.