We all know that Bellingham has grown in the last few years. When most of the housing in your neighborhood is fewer than five years old, how do you preserve a neighborhood identity? How do you make new neighbors feel part of it? Those questions faced the King Mountain Neighborhood Association (KMNA) in 2021 when many new housing developments sprang up in response to the city’s housing crisis.

The KMNA, which has been active since the neighborhood was annexed to the city in 2006, met to tackle this issue. Ideas to reinforce a neighborhood identity included art installations, community food gardens, flower beds, and trail maintenance. The association settled on three things:  Welcome signs for all road entry points to the neighborhood, professionally made sign boards to announce association meetings and other events, and two Little Free Libraries to promote social interaction and an exchange of culture between neighbors. These items came in under the $5,000 limit of the City of Bellingham’s Small and Simple Grant Program. The association applied for the grant and received the award in October.

“Welcome signs were the highest priority,” says KMNA board president Callum McSherry. “Some newcomers to the area don’t even know they are in a neighborhood. A sense of neighborhood identity opens the door to engagement with the community.”

The new Telegraph Townhomes, in King Mountain, will soon have a new Little Free Library thanks to the Small and Simple Grant Program. Photo credit: Cathi LeCocq

The items for the Small and Simple grant application were selected with the goal of a successful proposal, compliant with all conditions of the grant program. Funding will be sought from other sources for other desired items.

Neighborhood association funding takes a lot of an association board’s energy. Each of Bellingham’s 25 recognized neighborhood associations receives a stipend of $500 per year from the city, and KMNA uses the stipend to administer its website and maintain email communications with members. There is also a PayPal donation page for the association that McSherry “would like to see much more activity on.”

Small and Simple grants are available to any of Bellingham’s recognized neighborhood associations. The grants of up to $5,000 are awarded in an annual competitive process. The program, on hiatus for 10 years, resumed in 2019. The city awards as many grants per year as the total program budget allows; not all proposals reach the $5,000 limit. In 2021, 13 applications were received and approved. Applicants pay for the projects up front and submit receipts for reimbursement.

The thriving Cordata Community Garden. Photo courtesy Cordata Neighborhood Association

“Because of COVID-19, some of the projects have not been completed and those grants were extended into 2022,” says Janice Keller, Mayor Seth Fleetwood’s communication director. “This extended time of COVID has been challenging for our neighborhood associations as they try to maintain connections and build community, in most cases without holding their traditional in-person events, activities, and meetings.”

Applicants must convince the city that the sponsored projects will make “real, substantive, and positive changes” in the neighborhood. Examples of allowable projects are listed in the project guidelines on the city’s website, but applicants may suggest other ideas. Common requests include bike racks, graffiti removal, emergency survival kits, and landscaping/beautification projects.

The Cordata Neighborhood Association (CNA) received a grant to improve its Community Garden in 2019. Their highly successful garden was built in 2009. The majority of housing in Cordata is in apartment or condominium complexes, where residents don’t have land to garden. The Community Garden has 54 plots, and there’s always a waiting list.

Raised garden beds make gardening accessible for people with disabilities. Photo courtesy Cordata Neighborhood Association

Kate McDonald from the CNA says they used the grant money to help build a few more plots with raised beds for people with disabilities, “because we want the garden to be available to everyone.” The grant money will also help with maintenance that needs to be done on the 12-year-old facility.

The garden has received more grant assistance from the Whatcom Community Foundation, which has its own programs and requirements. “The Western Washington University Extension Office has been a huge help to us with planning and advice,” McDonald says. She is especially proud of the fact that the individual gardeners contribute their surplus harvest to collection bins for several local food banks and hunger assistance organizations. “We make a significant contribution to feeding our community.”

A neighborhood association’s logo helps “brand” a neighborhood, contributing to local identity. Photo courtesy Cordata Neighborhood Association

For 2022, the CNA has applied for another Small and Simple grant to add more Little Free Libraries to its existing network. “We don’t have a library branch in Cordata,” says McDonald. “We want one here, but until we get one, the Little Free Libraries provide a book exchange option without having to leave the neighborhood.”

Funding for neighborhood association projects can be hard to raise from individual members, especially in lower- and middle-income neighborhoods. In an increasingly disconnected world, the Small and Simple Grant Program allows Bellingham neighborhoods to enhance community and nurture a sense of home.

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