GOWANDA - A major grant will help Gowanda students walk or bike to school.
The state Department of Transportation recently announced $650,000 for the Safe Routes to School program to help educate students about healthier options for getting to and from school.
The money will also be used to help improve current routes.
Mayor Heather McKeever is excited about the grant but is aware there is criticism of the village receiving such a large sum of money.
"I am aware that there is always the potential for criticism when receiving grants such as these as I just recently read an (OBSERVER) opinion piece stating, 'Federal and state money for safer walking? In rural America? How much more federal and state dollars are being frittered away by questionable programs like these?' My response to such questions are as follows: The money is available for communities who put the effort into applying regardless if per one's personal opinion they find this program questionable. My question back to this opinion would be, why should the village of Gowanda be criticized for being doing their due diligence, applying and winning the award? The village of Gowanda is located in two rural towns (Persia and Collins). We have a number of our students and residents who walk and bike to the school buildings and athletic fields," she said.
"I find it unfair for the village of Gowanda to be labeled as 'rural' in a negative context as if we have cornfields and dairy farms located in our business district. As mayor of the village it is my responsibility to support efforts that lend to improving the living standards and quality of life for our residents. I strongly feel Gowanda is moving in a positive direction with working towards grants such as these," she continued.
This is not the first year that the village has applied for the grant. According to former Highway Superintendent Mike Hutchinson, the village applied four years ago but was not awarded the grant when he was still working for the village. A community outreach group was formed shortly after the first grant application. Through this group, a walkability study was conducted which was used in the grant application. It was through the Healthy Community Alliance the village was able to apply for the grant this year.
"With the assistance of the (Healthy Community Alliance) ... it has made a heck of a difference," Hutchinson, a member of the outreach group and HCA board member, said. "The HCA worked real well in terms of putting together a partnership between the school, the village and (themselves) to make a successful grant application. I think we got a much stronger program now thanks to the partnerships.
"So many entities are coming together for the good of kids. They're putting aside politics and putting what is good for the kids first. When they can all put their compartmentalized thinking aside and do good for the community, good can come out of government," he continued.
The five-year grant will be a partnership between the village, the Gowanda School District and the HCA, according to Betty Accordino, assistant director and public relations coordinator for the HCA.
"This will take several years to complete," she said. "The first year is mostly going to be working up the plan, developing the activities and developing how we are going to do it. The activities will then start to take place based on what we do in the plan."
The Safe Routes to School grant has $500,000 for infrastructure improvements and $150,000 for educational programs. The infrastructure side of the grant will work on sidewalks in high need areas within the village as well as addressing problematic intersections. An educational component will help with bicycle and walking safety for students. Mayor McKeever said a study conducted in 2009 confirms the village needs the repairs.
"Gowanda is a quaint village with amazing natural beauty. Many people each year come from all over the region and neighboring states to fish, hike and raft under the beauty of Zoar Valley and Cattaraugus Creek," she said. "(Safe Routes to School) supports the objectives of the village's Smart Development for Quality Communities, Master Plan and Downtown Revitalization Study and also meets Cattaraugus County's countywide strategy for physical activity. Plus, a Community Assessment conducted through the Healthy Community Capacity Building Initiative in 2009 confirmed the need for the improvements."
The first year of the grant will mainly be brainstorming by all partners involved. Hutchinson hopes to bring in Consultant Rodney Tolley of Walk 21 to help with the school travel plan. Tolley has done walkable communities all over the country and the world. The timeline of the grant will follow project planning and design in year two; project agreements, finalizing plans and starting construction in years three and four; and getting inspections completed in the final year. The majority of the programs will be targeted toward younger students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Hutchinson said there are more than 860 students in grades K through eight.
"We're going to look at what programs and what infrastructure need to be built to facilitate a healthier lifestyle for the kids," Hutchinson said. "This is targeted towards the younger kids. Try to get to them early, create a healthy lifestyle and build the infrastructure to make it happen."
Hutchinson said that he hopes the parents will get involved and walk with their children to school or start a walking school bus - a group of adults who walk with students to school. Hutchinson wants to involve the community as much as possible through the planning stages and beyond; he wants full community support and input throughout the five years.
There are also plans to develop a walking trail adjacent to Cattaraugus Creek and the HCA along North Water Street to Hillis Field with grant money. The village is interested in developing property along Cattaraugus Creek, including work being currently done on the former Peter Cooper Site on Palmer Street and Veterans Park on South Water Street.
The community partners - the school, HCA and the village - will be meeting in the near future to work on a plan to implement the activities, according to Accordino.
Hutchinson and McKeever expressed their thanks for those who have helped with the grant.
"A lot of credit goes out to the folks who put in their time," he said.
McKeever echoed Hutchinson by saying, "I'm grateful for the time and effort the Healthy Community Alliance and their committee put into applying for this grant, and the village looks forward to partnering with them on future projects as they become available."
Hutchinson would also like to thank the Gowanda Central School District, the board of education and Superintendent Charles Rinaldi; Mayor McKeever, Trustee Carol Sheibley and the rest of the village board; and Executive Director Sharon Mathe and the rest of the HCA.
"It's really an extraordinary community accomplishment for a small village like (Gowanda) to get this kind of funding," Accordino said.