Community grants from SugarHouse will soon increase

The SugarHouse casino has disbursed funds to some River Wards communities through the Penn Treaty Special Services District since 2009. FILE PHOTO

It may just be the facilities at Fishtown Athletic Club, or the baseball diamond at Hetzell field. Maybe it’s an old ignored park that has recently bloomed to life, an empty building that has been renovated, or new banners hanging in the street declaring local heritage.

But all of these things — at least in Fishtown, East and South Kensington, Olde Richmond and Northern Liberties — are signs of the work being financed by the Penn Treaty Special Services District (PTSSD), which distributes donations from SugarHouse Casino.

“Every penny goes back to the community,” said Richard Levins, of Fishtown, one of the seven board members tasked with disbursing funds from the city’s first casino. “Everybody in this neighborhood should feel that these dollars we receive from SugarHouse are being given out in a fair and meaningful way and will contribute to the overall quality of life of the community.”

On Oct. 8, SugarHouse made its annual donation of $500,000 to PTSSD. With $500,000 every year since 2010, and a $175,000 grant in 2009, SugarHouse has now granted $2.1 million to PTSSD. After its planned expansion, SugarHouse will be obligated by the community benefit agreement it signed in 2009 to increase its annual donation to $1 million. That expansion is expected to begin in the spring of next year.

“We’re excited about really being able to do more,” said Levins, who works as vice president-deputy counsel at Independence Blue Cross by day, of the increase. “We have been able to fund so many organizations, events and really good programs by various community groups. But the funding need is still there.”

In general, the PTSSD looks to grant money to causes that will improve the quality of life in the neighborhood in a lasting way, rather than a short-term way, board members said — board member Kevin Kelly, of Northern Liberties, who recently retired from his day job as a fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force, explained that PTSSD typically chooses to fund requests for general operating costs only once.

“With operating costs requests, organizations understand it is a one-time deal. We don’t want to be funding you every year; it’s money to get your feet underneath you,” he said.

However, PTSSD will grant the same organization several grants for different specific projects or uses. There is no limit to the number of grants any one group can receive. There are few limitations on who PTSSD can give the funds to; it’s just a question of what their board decides to do.

Almost every major non-profit and registered community organization within the PTSSD’s boundaries has received funding from the group.

“A lot of groups have realized they’re giving out funds that nobody else has,” said A.J. Thomson, president of the Friends of Penn Treaty Park, which has received three grants totaling $95,000 from PTSSD.

“We’ve sponsored countless events, like Shadfest and the summer concert series … we’re giving away 500 pumpkins to kids tomorrow,” Thomson said, referring to last weekend’s Halloween event in Penn Treaty Park. “That’s the kind of stuff we’re able to do now.”

The New Kensington Community Development Corporation received a $41,492 grant, which will go toward repairing the entire exterior and façade of its Frankford Avenue offices, and a $7,500 sponsorship to support its program to clean vacant lots.

“The great thing about the SSD funds is that it goes to neighborhood groups that have very real needs and in many cases not a lot of options to get the funds needed,” said NKCDC executive director Sandy Salzmann via email.

The Northern Liberties Neighbors Association received a $60,000 grant, which went toward the renovation of a building at 3rd and Fairmount, adjacent to the Northern Liberties Community Center. It’s now rented out to a local business, the Northern Liberties Mailbox Store, which pays rent at an affordable rate to the NLNA. NLNA also received a $3,000 sponsorship that supports its music festival and other free community events.

“The thing that’s really helpful and smart about what the Special Services District does is they like to fund capital projects,” said NLNA president Matt Ruben. “With the ongoing income to ourselves and to the business owner [of the Mailbox Store], the $60,000 has repaid itself already. The multiplier effect is huge.”

Fishtown Action (FACT) received a $45,000 grant, which has gone toward a project to hang neighborhood banners on the streets of Fishtown, as well as to children’s Halloween, Easter and Christmas parties, and to funding other community charities and events, according to president Maggie O’Brien.

In addition to its own grants, the Friends of Penn Treaty Park secured a $50,000 grant from PTSSD that will go to the city to pay for the construction of a new playground at Penn Treaty Park, Thomson said.

East Kensington Neighbors Association (EKNA) received a $3,000 sponsorship from PTSSD for the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival, according to former president Jeff Carpineta.

The Fishtown Neighbors Association received a $25,000 grant, $10,000 of which went to the recent River City Festival, according to president Kate Micklow. The other $15,000 is for the FNA’s “Feed your Fish” public art program that is developing designs for new trashcans in Fishtown.

The South Kensington Community Partners (SKCP) received two grants totaling $39,000 mdash; the earlier $14,000 grant it received was under the group’s old name, KSNAC — which has gone toward greening programs, the vacant lot management initiative, and other community resources, according to SKCP director Lauren Lynch.

The Kensington South Community Development Corporation received a $39,700 grant. That group did not respond by press time to requests for comment on how it used the grants.

When asked whether they ever fear running out of groups to fund and organizations to support, all the members of the board agreed on the answer: no, not in these economic times.

But some community members said they think that PTSSD could publicize itself a little more.

“I think they need to communicate more that this money is available to the community, and that means going out to community groups,” said FACT president Maggie O’Brien. “I think there are some groups that might not realize that they’re eligible to get money.”

The Special Services District is defined as running along the Delaware River from Lehigh Avenue to Callowhill Street. The western border goes up 6th Street, along West Girard Ave, up Germantown Avenue, over at Berks Street and along Norris Street to Frankford Avenue and then up to Lehigh Avenue. Any group or person within those borders can apply for funds.

“It’s very specific to the district. If it’s one block over, I’m sorry, but you’re in Old City,” said PTSSD board chair Rick Angeli, of Northern Liberties, who works in television production and advertising.

The PTSSD is also a transparent organization. Any member of the public who requests to see its books may do so, said PTSSD board member and treasurer John Moore, of South Kensington.

“We try to be fair. That’s what we’re here for — to spread it around,” said Moore, now retired, a former Rohm & Haas employee who worked as a lab manager and mechanic.

As of February 2013, PTSSD has granted $1,107,560 to various community organizations and has distributed $49,050 in sponsorships. About 60 community organizations and initiatives have been funded by PTSSD.

One for-profit business has received a grant from PTSSD, the Spirit newspaper, which received a $20,000 grant for new computers for its Fishtown office. At the time, Kelly said the board was always willing to work with a private business in an extraneous circumstance if — as in the case of the Spirit — the board felt there was enough of a community benefit involved.

A grant was considered for Finnigan’s Wake bar in Northern Liberties, but was not given.

Schools, like St. Laurentius in Fishtown, have also received grant money.

“I don’t know if we will ever give a grant to a [for-profit] again. It’s hard to say never, but I don’t know if we ever will,” Levins said. “We’re really focused on the 501c(3) non-profits. There’s certainly enough of them around.”

The community benefit agreement that SugarHouse signed in 2009, after negotiations by FACT and NKCDC, expires after 15 years, in 2024, and will be re-negotiated. The donations could continue or change at that point.

To learn more about PTSSD or to apply for a grant, visit www.penntreatyssd.com.