The city of Preston was recently notified that it was one of 32 cities in throughout Minnesota that has received a grant through the Small Cities Development Program. The federally-funded program awarded Preston a grant worth $471,250 through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). The money will be re-appropriated through the Bluff Country Housing and Redevelopment Authority (BCHRA) to projects centered on owner-occupied and rental housing rehabilitation.

DEED Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben said in a statement released June 11 that, "These grants make it possible for Minnesota's smaller communities to provide safe, affordable housing opportunities for their residents. Not only will the projects generate local jobs and stimulate economic development, they will create suitable living environments for workers - something that is vital to the success of our communities."

Almost $18 million were given out in these grants this year to cities and townships with populations under 50,000 and counties with populations under 200,000. The money Preston received will go toward the renovation of the Vesterheim apartments and the rehabilitation of 15 owner-occupied houses in the city.

"We are very fortunate to get the money. We got everything we asked for," explained Gerry Krage of the BCHRA saying the success of the application was a testament to everyone who worked hard on it.

Preston City Administrator Joe Hoffman explained that the grant was authorized by the city council early in 2013 to be completed. "It seemed like a natural pairing," Hoffman explained of including both the Vesterheim project and the owner-occupied projects on the grant application. The city was notified on June 6 of their receipt of the award. They will now need to approve an agreement with DEED in order to receive the award. Preston will then enter into an agreement with BCHRA.

The partnership with BCHRA allows the funds for the owner-occupied projects to be distributed to individual applicants who qualify. In the early fall of 2012, applications were taken and a list compiled of the single-home owners who wanted assistance in residential rehabilitation projects relating to health and safety. The list reflects the chronological order in which the applications were received by the BCHRA office. Krage explained that eligible households must fulfill financial and size of household requirements.

According to Krage, around 80 Preston households applied. In writing the grant application, Krage said BCHRA considered a number of projects that would realistically be able to be taken on within the required 24 month project completion window. They determined 15 homes, at $20,000 to $22,000 per individual project, to be a realistic request. This, included with administration costs, totaled around $371,000 and including a $100,000 request for the Vesterheim apartments.

The 15 projects will be selected by the BCHRA. No more applications for this year's money will be taken.

Krage explained that the Southeastern Minnesota Citizen's Action Council (Semcac) would be supporting the BCHRA through a service agreement. This partnership would allow Semcac to evaluate each of the 15 homes to see if they qualify for assistance through some of their programs. The DEED money can only be used for health and safety fixes such as bathroom renovations, stairwell repairs and other areas that may pose risk to the homeowners.

Krage said weatherization through Semcac could lead to the replacement of heaters and fans.

"The DEED program is very specific," Krage explained. "It helps people stay in their homes and increase the vitality of a neighborhood without slipping backward."

If a homeowner who receives money for their projects moves out within seven years, a portion of that money used will need to be paid back to the city of Preston. That money, in turn, would be used for similar projects.

"We're very excited by the opportunity we have to provide owner-occupied homes in the community with rehabilitation assistance," Hoffman said. "This has an immediate impact for homeowners." Local contractors will benefit as well, as much of the rehabilitation work will be put out for bid in the area.

Krage also said there will be an increase in the quality of life for those who receive the assistance. "You'll see other things take place as people will begin to take more pride in their home," he explained. "The benefits of this go beyond the economic portion."