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Swain County hits the jackpot with Golden LEAF grants

Swain County could receive as much as $2 million in , one-time grant funding from the Golden LEAF Foundation for community betterment projects.

The Golden LEAF Foundation, a nonprofit that gives grants to economically distressed or rural communities, created a new program in 2007 that focuses on helping the poorest counties in North Carolina by giving each the chance to single out two or three problems that pester the community. The foundation then awards up to $2 million toward projects that will remedy, or at least curb, the problems — without having to go through the normal competitive grant application process.

“We wanted to go out and directly engage in those communities, put our boots on the ground in these communities,” said Patricia Cabe, vice president of programs, community assistance and outreach with Golden LEAF.

Because Swain County is ranked among the bottom 40 counties in the state in terms of economic vitality, Golden LEAF employees are working with county officials and residents to narrow down its list of needs and develop two or three promising projects that the nonprofit could help fund.

“They want everyone to say, ‘We have a need for this,’” said Ken Mills, the economic development director in Swain County. “The caveat is that it still has to fit Golden LEAF categories.”

The nonprofit’s main funding priorities fall under agriculture, job creation and retention, and workforce preparedness. The money could pay for viable plans to decrease high school dropout rates or increase tourism (thereby adding wealth and jobs to the county). And each plan must produce results.

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The Golden LEAF Foundation does not want to give money only to see a one-time return on its investment. The foundation wants to point to a project it funded and show how its money has affected change three, five, even 10 years down the road. During the process, counties are asked to create benchmarks to gauge a project’s progress.

“Try to set some goals that are realistic but also aspirational,” Cabe said.

Golden LEAF employees have held a couple meetings in Swain County to talk to residents, business owners and government officials to see what they are most concerned about and talk about how to fix the problem.

“If education is an issue, what are those things that you really want to move the needle on?” Cabe said.

Attendees have also looked at the county’s assets and successes that the Golden LEAF funding could amplify.

“What’s going on right now that we can build from?” Cabe said.

The program is unique because the foundation is present for every step of the process. It does not simply award money. Foundation representatives guide the county from beginning to end, from the first talks about the county’s struggles to check-ups to see results of its investment.

In a typical grant process, the applicant works diligently to craft a proposal, outlining its plans and the expected benefits of the project. It can be difficult to gauge whether a project fits into the review committee’s set of guidelines or expectations. The grant writers simply do their best and cross their fingers, hoping the project fits them and stands out from the crowd of other applications.

“You go, ‘OK, I think we fit what they said on their (request for proposals),” Mills said.

Swain County has not narrowed down what topics it hopes to tackle yet. But, within the next three months, Cabe said, the county will finish evaluating potential funding priorities and begin writing draft proposals, which Golden LEAF officials can critique. By summer or early fall, Swain County will begin implementing its plans.



Want to weigh in?

Golden LEAF Foundation representatives will meet with Swain County leaders, business owners and residents at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 25 at the Swain County Regional Business Education and Training Center on Buckner Branch Road. The meeting is open to the public.

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