Downtown Culture Clash: Nonprofits Battle for the Last Sliver of 9/11 Government Funds

Lower Manhattan cultural groups, schools and nonprofits are racing to meet a deadline to grab the last pocket of federal

Lower Manhattan cultural groups, schools and nonprofits are racing to meet a deadline to grab the last pocket of federal grant monies related to 9/11.

Late last month, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation announced that a final $17 million of funds would be distributed among nonprofits south of Houston Street who apply by Nov. 5.

Several hundred nonprofits are expected to apply by the deadline, next Friday. And, as the grants range from $100,000 to $1 million, most will be disappointed.

The Tribattery Pops, a Lower Manhattan marching band that does jazz standards and Lady Gaga, badly needs uniforms, according to founder Tom Goodkind. The museum in the Eldridge Street Synagogue is seeking funds to refurbish its front doors. The New York City Police Museum needs $1 million to build a more informative memorial to officers killed in the line of duty; director Julie Bose said she hoped the LMDC will approve of the 9/11 connection. And Ellis Island, which points to its 212 area code as proof that it counts as “Lower Manhattan,” needs $1 million to finish a $20 million expansion. “It can’t hurt to ask, right?” said Ellis Island’s vice president, Peg Zitko.

Set up after the Sept. 11 attacks to boost a struggling downtown, the LMDC started off a decade ago with $2.78 billion from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Jointly overseen by the city and the state, it has become emblematic of the public perception of bureaucratic stagnation at ground zero. Some original recipients received money months, even years, later than promised. Other funds are still undistributed, or have been until now.

An LMDC information session at One Liberty Plaza last Friday was standing room only, and tempers frayed as many applicants apparently didn’t understand either the requirements or the need, after all this time, for speed. (The crowd grumbled as an LMDC representative repeated over and over, in answer to questions, that “we feel we’ve already addressed that on our Web site.”)

“I’m not O.K. with [the time pressure],” said Chinatown Partnership director Charles Lai. In an effort to spread the potential wealth around, he is trying to gather together a coalition of Chinatown nonprofits to apply. It’s an undertaking that he said demands time. “Even though time is tight, it is doable,” he said, but stressed that he was “giving the LMDC a tremendous benefit of the doubt.” Mr. Lai is the former director of the Museum of the Chinese in America, which reopened last year in a new facility. Funded in part by LMDC grant money, it is one of the program’s successes.

“We’re very committed to getting the grants out quickly,” said LMDC director David Emil.

In their pitches, the nonprofits must explain how their project is “designed to spur long-term Lower Manhattan revitalization, and benefit area residents, workers, businesses and visitors.”

Which groups will win? Julie Menin, Community Board 1 chair and an LMDC board member, is one of the people who will determine how the funds are divvied up. She said she prefers capital projects because construction means employment. “It is irresponsible to allocate money for esoteric programs that are not making money and creating jobs,” she said. Although she sits on its board, she speaks of the LMDC with carefully modulated outrage. She has led the charge for a related project, a plan to divert at least $100 million previously promised by the LMDC to Con Edison and other utilities that sustained damage on 9/11 to a long-planned Performing Arts Center at Ground Zero. (The LMDC will vote on this distribution in November.) Although that money is unrelated to this $17 million, the spirit is the same. That the grants were awarded years ago and not yet fully doled out is “unconscionable,” she said.

Widely agreed to have an inside track in this round of funding is Ellis Island’s new Peopling of America Center, which will expand the museum’s focus from the early 20th century to the whole history of American immigration. Ms. Zitko said that Community Board 1 has already given the plan a unanimous endorsement, impressed by Ellis Island’s promise of 400,000 estimated additional visitors, all of whom, the museum argued, will be spending money in the Financial District while they await their ferry. “Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, I think many people consider them part of Lower Manhattan,” said Ms Zitko. That the exhibit is already mostly paid for won’t hurt, either. “This is a project that is sure to happen,” said Ms. Zitko. “It’s well under way.”

Some of the applicants have received money from the LMDC before, with mixed results. The Asian American Arts Centre used its grant to build an online archive of its collection, and was nearly bankrupted, said Robert Lee, director of the centre, when the reimbursement came late.

“We had to lay off staff,” said Mr. Lee. “My loan was delinquent for many, many months, and we almost went under.” He is applying for a second grant to continue work on the archive, but said he isn’t counting on the money.

Tribeca’s Church Street School for Music and Art expanded lavishly with LMDC money in 2007, and is seeking more funds. That’s because a delay in reimbursement, combined with overruns in construction costs, left them $1 million in debt. “We’re still paying our contractors,” said Betsy Kerlin, the school’s director of development. Although they need cash “urgently,” she is staying calm. “My sense is that this is part of what happens with federal funding,” she said. “The release doesn’t happen when you want it to.”

Councilwoman Margaret Chin called these unfortunate experiences the exceptions. “There might have been some problems,” she said, “but I think in the main the groups that showed up at my hearing a couple of weeks ago were talking about how much the grants have helped them.”

Federal funding or no, marching band leader Mr. Goodkind is committed to Battery Park City, which he said has felt like a small town ever since 9/11. Even in sweatpants, the Tribattery Pops will be marching next Fourth of July. “Wait till you’ve heard us,” he said. “We’re pretty bad.”

  Downtown Culture Clash: Nonprofits Battle for the Last Sliver of 9/11 Government Funds