Local onion producers hope a new rail reload center near Nyssa will mean higher profits. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)
VALE - The executive had a deal for Greg Smith when she called last fall.
For no cost, her Pendleton firm could take on the job of chasing down millions of dollars for Malheur County.
The offer came soon after Smith learned his own work to get that money had failed. The U.S. Department of Transportation concluded the application he submitted last May was “unacceptable.”
The money remains key to turning farmland now owned by taxpayers into a Nyssa industrial park, adjacent to the planned Treasure Valley Reload Center.
Susan Christensen and her team at Greater Eastern Oregon Development Corp. are well positioned to help. They had years of economic development experience and had just added an experienced grant writer to its staff.
Smith agreed to use the fresh help.
“We have just started working in earnest on the application,” Christensen said by email Friday.
The no-cost work will stand in contrast to the thousands that Malheur County taxpayers had paid to Smith’s firm over nearly two years to chase the same funds.
Smith didn’t respond to written questions about why the Malheur County Economic Development Department hadn’t turned to the Pendleton nonprofit in the first place.
Instead, Gregory Smith & Company collected $138,000 from Malheur County over 22 months for under a contract to principally pursue what was known as the BUILD grant.
Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge, said in an interview he has been on the board of Greater Eastern Oregon Development for 16 years.
But he said Smith, a state legislator from Heppner, never alerted him or the Malheur County Court about the possibility of free service either.
“That has never come up at meetings,” he said.
Asked why the county hadn’t used the service before, Joyce replied, “That is a really good question.”
Joyce explained that though he has been on the development corporation’s board, he was unaware it provided local governments free work to pursue grants.
The new role in Malheur County for the Pendleton firm was revealed after the Enterprise sought public records about the $15 million from Smith’s county agency.
Under Smith’s guidance, the county’s application had a hurried sense to it. An investigation by the Enterprise found it didn’t provide crucial information sought by federal officials to judge whether to hand over the $15 million. Large segments were copied from an earlier submission to the state that Smith’s firm already had been paid to produce.
Records show Smith’s team didn’t round up crucial letters of support from Oregon’s congressional delegation until just days before the application for the federal money was due last May.
And the county also asked for $5 million for utility work that can’t be funded by the federal grant. The county will have to look elsewhere for that money.
Smith did hire some outside help to get the application done, retaining Pac/West, a lobbying and marketing firm in Portland.
But the $4,500 paid to the company last April wasn’t to gather information for the application.
“We simply provided creative support,” said Paul Phillips, Pac/West president. He said his firm did the “graphic design and layout” for Malheur County’s submission.
Despite the glossy look, federal authorities didn’t include Malheur County on the list of grant winners it announced in September. Smith arranged a telephone conference in November with federal officials to learn why.
Christensen said she reached out to Smith with her offer after reading that the grant had been turned down.
“I wanted to start the process of applying for the next BUILD grant,” she wrote in a Nov. 10 email to Smith.
In an interview, Christensen said she joined the Nov. 17 call with a U.S. Transportation Department analyst to learn why the county’s application failed.
Smith initially provided county officials no indication how weak the county’s application had been.
“We received invaluable feedback,” Smith wrote hours after the conference call in an email to county commissioners. “Their presentation was prefaced by stating the incredible competitiveness of this round.”
Despite the importance of that conference call, Smith asserted neither he nor anyone at his county agency had notes about it.
Christensen recalled that the federal official made clear that the county’s application had to be more “focused” on the purpose of the federal money.
That was recorded in notes made of the conference by Brad Baird, president of Anderson Perry & Associates. His firm is providing engineering services for the Nyssa project.
“Unacceptable is our category,” Baird wrote. “Need more focus on clear, direct, significant benefits.”
Chirstensen’s own notes of the call, which she provided to the Enterprise, also noted the county’s application was “rated as unacceptable” because it was not specific enough. Her notes showed the application was “not clear, direct, significant” about merits of the industrial park.
Christensen said she and Smith have talked since the conference call to arrange an agreement for the Malheur County work. She said Greater Eastern Oregon Development provides grant services to seven counties and 39 cities in the region.
Besides grant work, Greater Eastern Oregon Development manages several loan programs, including financing for projects in Malheur County in recent years.
Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email at [email protected]
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