Philly.com: Connecting People to a River Park

October 022, 2012
By Alfred Lubrano

Dedication of the new bridge at Schuylkill River Park on Oct. 20, 2012. Here, David Bershad, 8, of Philadelphia, grins as he is one of the first to walk across the bridge.
By April Saul, Philly.com.

(Philly.com) For years, it’s been one of those “only in Philly” kind of conundrums:

You couldn’t easily get to the Schuylkill from the place known as Schuylkill River Park.

Between the bright green oasis at 25th and Spruce Streets and the beckoning waterfront are hard-to-cross CSX railroad tracks.

Access denied – until Saturday.

A long-anticipated and fought-over pedestrian bridge that connects the park to the riverfront trail known as Schuylkill Banks opened Saturday, on time and under budget.

The $5.6 million Schuylkill River Parks Connector Bridge ($200,000 less than anticipated) welcomed its first walkers and bicyclists on a warm fall afternoon tailor-made for one of those ribbon-cutting ceremonies with oversize scissors.

At the dedication, speakers involved in the bridge’s creation used words such as angst, conflict, and really complicated to describe the process of placing 95 feet of prefabricated brown steel over the tracks.

Though, yes, the bridge is attractive, it’s certainly no seventh wonder of the world. So why was there so much tug and hassle in its genesis?

“To the untrained eye, this looks simple,” said Rina Cutler, deputy mayor of transportation and utilities. “But it took a lot of shepherding.”

There were endless community meetings, legal skirmishes, and emotional wrangling sometimes at volumes rivaling the barking coming from the shiny new dog park that’s part of the new construction.

Urban planners will tell you such fights are to be expected in tight urban settings where the needs of neighborhood residents must be balanced against those of government, cyclists, dog owners, joggers – not to mention a major railroad company.

For years, the way people got from the park to the river was by playing a dangerous game with hulking freight trains.

Contractor David Curtis, 26, a longtime former resident of the neighborhood who recently moved to Wilmington, explained it this way:

A train would sit, unmoving for hours. A pedestrian or bicyclist would eye the stilled behemoth “and become incredibly tempted to hop between the railroad cars to get to the river,” courting catastrophe.

CSX wound up suing the city to stop people from doing that. The bridge was part of the 2007 settlement.

Built only with federal dollars, the bridge took 15 months to complete. It includes a large, soaring concrete ramp.

“It’s critically important to provide safe access to make sure folks can access the river trail,” said Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner of parks and facilities for the city.

Along with the bridge, the $5.6 million paid for the dog park, as well as improvements to the park with lights, a lawn, and new paving.

“It’s beautiful, functional, utilitarian, and brings us back to our rivers,” said Michael DiBerardinis, parks and recreation commissioner.

Drew Davidson, 50, a Center City video editor and cyclist, agreed.

“The river is such a resource,” he said. “I judge cities by how bikable they are, and this bridge makes biking along the river perfect.”

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U.S. Mayor: Revised DATA Act Bill Still Needs Work to Minimize Unnecessary Burdens, Costs on Local Government

October 01, 2012
By Larry Jones

Mayor Salvatore “Sal” Panto of Easton, PA speaks at the January 2010 U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington DC.

(USMayors.org) Senators Mark Warner (VA) and RobPortman (OH) on September 21 introduced a revised version of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA) of 2012. The purpose of the legislation is to improve transparency in federal spending, and streamline federal reporting requirements. The original version of the bill (S. 1222) was introducedin June 2011. The new version differs in a number of ways from the House companion bill, H.R. 2147, which was approved by the House last April.

One of the key differences is the House bill would require all federal grantees, contractors, and loan recipients to report to a central database on their receipt and expenditure of federal funds.The new Senate version would eliminate the recipient reporting requirement and require the Office of Management and Budget (OBM) to review agency-specific reporting requirements and propose a way to streamline them. The Conference of Mayors in a September 11 letter to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee expressed concerns that these new reporting requirements would impose costly burdens on local governments.

To enhance transparency, the new Senate version takes a different approach from the House bill. Instead of combining the four existing federal spending transparency websites (Recovery.gov, USASpending.gov, the catalogue of Federal Domestic Assistance, and the Consolidated Federal Funds Report) into a new single portal, the new Senate version would use one of the existing portals, USASpending.gov. This portal would be modified by adding data to meet the new reporting requirements. Furthermore, it would dramatically expand the data offering available on the website. USASpending.gov would be required to file reports for each agency, each agency component, each program, and each object class. Reports would bemade on the dollar amounts available, obligated, spent, and transferred.

Like the House version, the revised Senate bill calls for government-wide data standards for reporting. But unlike the House version, the new Senate version requires the Treasury Department to establish these standards after consulting with OMB, the General Services Administration and the heads of federal agencies. The House bill would require a new (Federal Accountability and SpendingTransparency) Commission to designate common data elements for federal spending information.

The Conference of Mayors made a number of recommendations to improve the Senate version of the DATA Act including: adding a funding provision to help grant recipients implement the new requirements; providing a reasonable phase-in period or a 12-month timeframe for recipients to fully comply with the new requirements; minimizing and not placing new burdens on recipients; consolidate and standardize reporting requirements and set realistic deadlines for meeting these requirements; and conduct a cost benefit analysis to ensure that the reporting requirements promote openness and transparency. Some ofthe recommendations were embraced in the new Senate version and Conference staff will continue to work to get the othersadopted.

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U.S. Mayor: 113 Mayors Sign Letter Recommending Improvements to Legislation Promoting Accountability, Transparency in Reporting on Federal Grants

September 17, 2012
By Larry Jones

President Obama participates in a Q&A session at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in January 2010.

(USMayors.org) A broad bipartisan group of 113 mayors recommended in a September 11 letter a number of changes to improve the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA) of 2012, H.R. 2147/S. 1222, legislation aimed at improving reporting requirements on federal grants, loans and contracts. The letter, signed by Conference President Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter, Conference Vice President Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, Conference Second Vice President Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, Conference Immediate Past President Antonio Villaraigosa and mayors from across the nation, expressed support for reforms that would improve reporting and transparency on grants, but offered recommendations to minimize unnecessary burdens and costs on local governments.

The purpose of the DATA Act is to codify lessons learned from implementing the stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (AARA). Under AARA, state and local governments received federal funds from numerous federal agencies with different reporting requirements. Instead of requiring them to file separate reports, AARA developed standardized reporting requirements for all stimulus funds, which helped the federal government achieve an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability on spending stimulus funds.

The DATA Act is intended to codify more standardization, transparency and accountability in federal grants reporting. But the legislation would impose significantly more reporting requirements on state and local governments. And it would do so without providing any additional federal support to help them implement, administer and maintain the new reporting requirements. The legislation enjoys wide bipartisan support in both houses of Congress.

The House approved its version of the bill last April and the Senate bill is pending before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

In the mayors’ letter, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (CT) and Senator Susan Collins (ME), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, were urged to adopt several changes in S. 1222. First, they were urged to include a funding provision to help grant recipients implement the new reporting requirements. Second, they were asked to allow a reasonable phase-in period or a twelve-month timeframe for grant recipients to fully comply with the new requirements. Third, they said the DATA Act must avoid imposing new burdens on grant recipients, and one way of doing this would ensure that each recipient only has to report the data once and not multiple times to different federal agencies. Fourth, they urged that reporting not be required more than quarterly, that recipients be required to file those reports only once, and that reporting requirements not extend beyond the first-tier subrecipients and vendors.

Mayors also recommended a costbenefit analyses be conducted to ensure that the new reporting requirements promote openness, transparency, and accountability of federally funded grants.

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Technically Philly: KEYSPOT [VIDEO]

August 03, 2012
By Daniel Carvalho and Gabrielle Chepurny

100k hours of computer training to 10k Philadelphians in last year, planning for end of federal funding

A Philadelphia resident logs onto a computer at a KEYSPOT location.

(Technically Philly) More than 70 computer training centers in Philadelphia have been given new life and helped familiarize more than 10,000 low-income residents with digital technology in the past year.

Next up for the KEYSPOT initiative, backed by the Freedom Rings Partnership, is to figure out what to do when the $18 million initial federal stimulus funding runs out a year from now. It’s something the partnership is putting as among its top priorities says Joanne Ferroni, among the Drexel University-based coordinators.

“We are working with sites and managing partners to come up with a collective vision for digital literacy and then support individual partners to sustain their own efforts,” said Ferroni. “We are collectively working toward a broad-based funding strategy that will support Philadelphia becoming the most digitally literate and digitally engaged city in the country.”

Since first rolling out these centers with a kickoff last May, these locations have served as more than just the traditional computer lab focusing on providing hardware for users, organizers say. KEYSPOT centers, which include bolstered rec centers and existing nonprofit organizations, provide classes and one-on-one instruction to people looking to gain basic online skills along with the standard computer monitor and keyboard.

So now organizers are out trying to keep them alive past next summer, as direct funding to keep centers open (lights, staffing, equipment etc.) closes in June 2013 and additional support managed by the Urban Affairs Coalition ends in August 2013.

Another piece of the puzzle is the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, or BTOP. This program has three main objectives, to connect community infrastructures such as schools and hospitals to the Internet, provide public computer centers and increase broadband Internet usage.

[Full Disclosure: KEYSPOT was a sponsor and event partner during Philly Tech Week 2012]

The federal funding comes as part of The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that also provides financial assistance to housing, education and healthcare institutions. The two years worth of funding is the governments way to combat the divide in Philadelphia, which as been successful so far.

The initiative is cheered by the administration as a public-private partnership success story, bringing together dozens of private institutions and the City of Philadelphia. The City’s Division of Technology works to manage the funds granted to the City of Philadelphia by the federal government for what has become the KEYSPOT effort.

That effort is portrayed as nothing short of being the city’s ground game against a massive divide between a growing, web literate creative and professional class and an at least 40 percent chunk of Philadelphia households that have no Internet access — who will be increasingly unable to find work in the future.

Classes offered at KEYSPOT centers teach people not only how to navigate the web and social media sites but also how to apply for jobs and manage accounts like online banking. In addition to this, instructors help teach participants how to create a resume and how to use Microsoft Word to write a proper cover letter. The main objective of the classes offered at the KEYSPOT locations is to help people find jobs — a spirit found in a Philly Tech Week event held by the Frankford CDC.

“We have a training center here called CET, which is the Center for Employment and Training. We make sure that [the clients] are proficient in Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint and that they also know how to job search online and make sure they have a professional email account,” said Hamidou Traore, computer instructor for the KEYSPOT located at the Families First/People’s Emergency Center in West Philadelphia, which also serves as a shelter and food pantry as we’ve heard before.

Watch a video about KEYSPOT partner location.

Since December 2011, 74 KEYSPOT locations have opened across Philadelphia, including offering additional services at existing community centers. Through use of these locations more than 100,000 hours of online and computer training has been provided to more than 10,000 participants. This is in addition to the 113 jobs that were either saved or created by the KEYSPOT by offering funding for staffing at existing similar centers, according to the Freedom Rings Partnership.

Once participants successfully complete a series of training classes they are given a free Netbook. This free distribution of Netbooks reached 1,774 as of March 2012. Although many participants still do not have at-home Internet access, through training they learn how many of their smartphones can be used as a Hotspot in order to gain online access for their Netbook — and there are also tools like Connect Philly to help connect residents with free wireless spots.

“One of the keys is to help partners to see a KEYSPOT as more than just the computing center within an organization—by having a KEYSPOT they have the ability to integrate digital literacy into every aspect of how they serve their clients,” said Ferroni.

But the KEYSPOT project is already two thirds through its funding cycle, though Ferroni is quick to boast its impact.

“We are on track with our spending goals but have surpassed our performance goals,” she said, referencing the number of training hours and individuals reached. “We recognize that life after the grant will look very differently than it does today and that we aren’t likely to get another $18 million to sustain our efforts.”

The centers additionally have provided a place for children to spend time. With school out for the summer, the KEYSPOT centers have experienced a large increase in numbers of school-aged children attending the labs during operating hours, said those at the People’s Emergency Center. With instructors on-site during this time, kids get supervision and are taught how to navigate the web safely.

“The interesting offshoots that have been happening training-wise I’ve found are with our young people who are very interested in the things like multimedia production,” Lorelei Shingledecker said. Singledecker is the program manager for BTOP, the driving funding of the Freedom Rings Partnership, at the People’s Emergency Center in West Philadelphia.

There are a few projects aimed at youth who attend the KEYSPOT locations and are interested in the ins-and-outs of multimedia production.

“We’ve been running a stop-motion animation class at two agencies in West Philadelphia. We’ve also run Photoshop classes, classes in digital photography and we’re also running a podcasting class for young adults in the lab across from here [at People’s Emergency Center,]” Shingledecker said.

Families First/People’s Emergency Center is just one of the many locations providing assistance for those seeking computer education. Another location is called Critical Path Project in Center City. Critical Path works with participants who are looking to gain basic online skills and is also partnered with Philadelphia FIGHT, which housed the first KEYSPOT to open, to raise awareness and dole out education about HIV/AIDS.

“When people know how to find information they know how to protect themselves,” Deaglan Daugherty, digital inclusion manager for Philadelphia FIGHT said. Information in many forms.

Critical Path normally provides Internet education classes, however during the month of June – AIDS education month – they shut down their regular class sessions and instead devoted their time directly towards teaching participants about HIV/AIDS and how to find reliable information about the diseases on the web.

Critical Path also does its best to dispel the many myths surrounding the sexually transmitted diseases and hopes they are making a difference, said Daugherty.

“We teach them how to find reliable information and how to separate fact from opinion when it comes to medical information,” Daugherty said.

Beyond the educational services, Critical Path offers free email accounts, listserv and website hosting to all of its participants. All of these online services are completely secure and private, without any forms of advertising on the sites. Services such as these are useful for someone looking for a job or to promote their own business, a goal Critical Path aims to achieve like the rest of the KEYSPOT locations.

The KEYSPOT initiatives are a meant to be a bright spot in the recovery of a Philadelphia economy that hits hardest its most economically depressed areas. The computer labs are designed to help low-income areas gain Internet awareness and have the ability to improve their quality of life by doing so, and the numbers show the impact.

The Internet is responsible for 21 percent of economic growth in developed nations and provides educational services to more than 6,000,000 students taking online classes in the United States, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report.

While wealthier households are more likely to have a computer or broadband Internet access, poorer homes don’t have either and are more likely to use a smartphone to access the web.

“There are some startling statistics about how many jobs are only available online,” sad Lindsey Keck, program manager of Computing Centers for the City of Philadelphia’s Division of Technology. “Unless we really equip people with the skill sets and the opportunities to access the Internet and computers to be able to apply for those jobs that will just be yet another barrier that continues to create the stark divide between the haves and have-nots.”

This report was done in partnership with Temple University’s Philadelphia Neighborhoods program, the capstone class for the Temple’s Department of Journalism. Additional reporting was provided by editor Christopher Wink and reporter Juliana Reyes.

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City of Philadelphia: Mayor Nutter Signs Executive Order Establishing Mayor’s Office of Grants

July 17, 2012
Mark McDonald, Press Secretary

Mayor Michael Nutter speaks for the Martin Luther King Day of Service, 2011.

(City of Philadelphia) Mayor Michael A. Nutter signed an executive order establishing the Mayor’s Office of Grants, which will increase the City’s capacity and capabilities to compete for federal, state and philanthropic grants as well as to manage the funding with transparency. New city-wide procedures will be instituted regarding the coordination, competition and application for grant funding, and the Office will regularly report on the effectiveness of grant-funded projects to both the funders and the public. The executive director of Mayor’s Office of Grants will be Maari Porter, formerly the Deputy Director of Finance for Recovery who oversaw the City’s distribution and management of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding.

“The Mayor’s Office of Grants is a strategic addition, which will allow the City to more effectively compete for increasingly scare federal, state and philanthropic resources,” said Mayor Nutter. “My Administration has been a strong partner on grant funded programs, which improve the lives of thousands of residents and visitors in the city. I have full confidence that this office will uphold the highest ethical standards and will ensure that the City of Philadelphia continues to receive significant grant funding allowing us to invest in the programs, systems and infrastructure for our citizens.”

In Fiscal Year 2011, the City of Philadelphia was awarded $1.2 billion in grant funding from federal and state governments. Currently, the federal government is reforming its grant process to institute more competition and collaboration between counties and municipalities applying for funding. The Mayor’s Office of Grants will be tasked with responding to new allocation models by the federal government and with centralizing the application process. The Office will also work closely with the Chief Integrity Office to ensure compliance and monitoring of funding and reporting.

“I am delighted and honored to work with Mayor Nutter and his Administration in the newly established Grants Office,” said Director of the Mayor’s Office of Grants Maari Porter. “This Office will allow us to more easily apply for grants, monitor them and improve our processes.”

Maari Porter led the City’s Recovery Office and set the strategic direction for the City’s stimulus program with the Mayor and Finance Director. She oversaw quarterly reporting and performance management of $278 million in 50 ARRA grants, ensuring transparency for taxpayers.

Previously, Ms. Porter served as Capability Review Manager in the Office of the Cabinet Secretary for the United Kingdom and as a Performance Advisory in the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit. She has a MSc from the London School of Economics and Bachelors in Urban Planning from the University of Auckland.

Posted in News, Press Releases

Philly.com: Nutter opens an office to seek federal grants for Philadelphia

July 16, 2012
By Troy Graham

Philadelphia FIGHT Executive Director Jane Shull,Congressman Bob Brady, Mayor Nutter, Philadelphia FIGHT Director of Education Juliet Fink, and Andrew Buss, of the City’s Division of Technology, get ready to cut the ribbon at the Recovery Act-funded Critical Path Computer Lab.

(Philly.com) Mayor Nutter has created an Office of Grants in response to the nationwide competition for a shrinking pool of federal funds, increasingly doled out based for merit and innovation.

The new office, established by executive order, will seek federal, state, and private funding, and coordinate grant priorities across the administration.

The office will be run by Maari Porter, who since 2010 has been in charge of winning and managing the city’s share of federal stimulus money from the Recovery Act.

Any remaining Recovery Act money must be spent by September 2013.

Through the awarding of the stimulus money, Porter said, the Obama administration largely has shifted the way federal funds are dispensed.

She said the federal government often seeks to fund “the best demonstration project,” which can be evaluated and possibly replicated, and encourages partnerships with nonprofits and other jurisdictions.

The competition, she said, is stiff.

“We are competing with L.A., New York, Chicago,” Porter said. “I think the quality has really been pushed up in terms of innovation.”

Continuing to win grant money is key to the city’s finances.

In the 2011 fiscal year, the last year for which complete data are available, the city received $1.2 billion from federal and state grants.

Currently, each city department applies for its own grants, a process that can be confusing when more than one department applies for a grant.

“The federal government often comes back to us and says, ‘Which one is your priority?’ ” Porter said. “What we’re trying to do with this office is shift that so we’re having that conversation internally.”

Other jurisdictions – Porter cited Los Angeles and Massachusetts as models – are enacting similar plans, turning their recovery officers into grant gurus.

Porter said her first priority was likely to be seeking public safety funding. The new job will pay $115,000 per year.

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Eighth and final Stimulus at Work released

Stimulus at Work is a quarterly report highlighting how and where Philadelphia’s Recovery Act dollars are being spent. The timing of this publication coincides with the information reported to Federal and State agencies at the conclusion of each quarter’s reporting period.

In this edition of Stimulus at Work, Philadelphia’s grant awards are compared to other peer city recipients. Our analyses show that Philadelphia has been, overall, been strongly competitive and has been a national leader in some areas. Use the flash-based viewer below to browse Stimulus at Work, or you can download it here (.pdf).

While quarterly updates will continue to be issued, this is the final full-color, comprehensive Stimulus at Work report. Past releases of Stimulus at Work are archived on the Philadelphia Recovery website here.

Posted in News, Projects and Grants