A municipal broadband utility. A new fire station for Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Company. A Police Athletic League community center. A fund for helping Newark businesses and nonprofits recover from the effects of the pandemic.
Those are just a few of the items on the city’s wish list as officials began discussing how to spend the once-in-a-lifetime infusion of cash heading Newark’s way, courtesy of the latest federal stimulus bill.
Newark has been allotted $17 million from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, which was approved by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in March. Half of the money will be available next week, with the rest available next year. All the money must be used by the end of 2024, according to Finance Director David Del Grande.
While the city is still waiting for final guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department about how the money can be used, department heads compiled a list of 125 possible projects totaling $33 million – a list that obviously must be whittled down over the next few weeks and months.
“People are the ones that obviously have been impacted over the last year and quarter,” Mayor Jerry Clifton said Monday night. “I think I would like to see those issues that are people-related funded first.”
Two of the projects garnering the most support from Clifton and city council members are the fire station and the broadband utility.
Aetna is planning to build a new station at the former Burger King property on South Chapel Street to replace its recently closed Ogletown Road station and its aging Academy Street station. The proposal also includes expanding Aetna’s Thorn Lane station.
The project is estimated to cost nearly $14 million, and the fire department is seeking a contribution from the city.
“Somewhere in the $2 to $4 million range would be extremely helpful,” Aetna Vice President Ed Klima told council.
Councilman James Horning Jr. noted that Aetna prevents the city from having to spend millions each year to fund a paid fire department like Wilmington has.
“Given the position that we’re in with the funding we’re receiving, I think it makes sense to do what we can to support that, because really, it’s a long-term savings for the city finances, as opposed to having to create a department ourselves,” Horning said.
Meanwhile, the municipal broadband proposal involves the city offering internet service as a utility, just as it offers electric, water and sewer. A number of cities elsewhere in the country have begun offering broadband and often provide a better service for a lower price than corporate giants like Verizon and Comcast.
The city considered a similar idea a few years ago but did not move forward due to the cost. However, City Manager Tom Coleman said the new proposal is to do it in partnership with the Delaware Municipal Electric Corporation, which supplies electricity to Newark and other municipalities. Under such an arrangement, DEMEC would provide broadband service to several municipalities, and the cost of running it would be shared.
“So it is something that could theoretically work, but it would take a lot of investigation,” Coleman said.
Another notable proposal is to spend $1.5 million to finally build a park in the empty field on Old Paper Mill Road, across the street from the Newark Reservoir – a project that has been delayed several times. The city is also considering spending $3 million to purchase VFW Post 475’s building and baseball field, which is located behind city hall and could be used as part of a future plan to rebuild and expand city hall.
Other items on the list of potential projects include infrastructure, such as repaving roads and replacing aging water mains, as well as more mundane expenses like buying new garbage trucks and purchasing new computer software for city operations.
Councilman Jason Lawhorn proposed joining forces with The Newark Partnership to offer help to businesses looking to recover from the pandemic.
“One thought I had was to challenge TNP to put together our own little Newark economic recovery plan, what exactly we’re going to do and what funds would be required to execute it,” Lawhorn said. “That way, we have a more detailed understanding of what it means when we say we’re willing to spend money on economic development and recovery.”
Coleman said some possibilities include offering a few months of reduced electricity costs to new businesses that fill a vacant storefront, providing free or reduced-cost parking downtown and holding more events like Main Street Alfresco. The city could also work with TNP to research what types of businesses succeed in other college towns and try to recruit them to Newark.
Lawhorn also proposed funding grants for local nonprofits and community organizations.
Horning and Councilwoman Dwendolyn Creecy suggested the city explore building a Police Athletic League facility. Newark Police officers founded a PAL chapter in 2019 and have held pop-up events for kids in the community, with the long-term goal of opening a community center in Dickey Park.
Clifton and Councilman Travis McDermott said some of the money should be used to address flooding issues, particularly on Julie Lane in Barksdale Estates and Rahway Drive in Cherry Hill, which both saw damage during last year’s hurricane and other storms.
Clifton added that the city should consider contributing to the Newark Housing Authority’s redevelopment project in George Read Village. NHA is planning to redevelop the agency’s headquarters on Main Street and the senior housing units located behind it. The mixed-use redevelopment plan would include a new administration building, retail space, community space and up to 70 housing units.
Coleman and his staff plan to spend the next few weeks developing a more detailed proposal for using the funds, which will come back to city council for a vote.
The $17 million from the American Rescue Plan Act is in addition to the $2.3 million the city received from the first stimulus bill, the CARES Act, last year. That money had more restrictions and could only be used as reimbursement for expenses incurred due to the pandemic.