Nearly $146 million in Fort Worth’s American Rescue Plan Act funding is gone, six months after the city received $173 million in federal funding. Still, almost $28 million remains. 

The federal dollars, designed to spur pandemic-related economic recovery, paid for several big ticket items, including a convention center expansion for $40 million.

The rest of the federal funds will be in high demand. City departments had until May 13 to submit final requests for funding. City staff already had enough proposals to allocate the remaining dollars, Tony Rousseau, assistant finance director, said during an April 5 City Council work session

Departments could engage with outside agencies to coordinate proposals for the funds. The proposed project must qualify under non-revenue recovery categories, meaning they have to respond to the public health emergency, lessen economic impacts or improve infrastructure. 

The remaining money will be spent based on a framework approved by the City Council. The framework lays out priorities already met by federal funds, including projects delayed by the pandemic and permanent supportive housing development. 

Some unmet priorities included in the framework include a sports tourism soccer complex project and matching funds for eligible joint projects with other agencies. 

The departments will submit their proposals for the remaining funds to financial management services, which, along with a hired consultant, will submit the proposed projects to the city manager’s office. The City Managers will prioritize the projects based on eligibility. Council members will be the final step in approving the allocations. 

“Specific project managers … are intricately involved in not only requesting the allocations, but also managing the expenditures from start to finish, as well as all of the federal reporting,” Interim City Manager Reginald Zeno said. 

What can federal money be used for? 

  •  Respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency 
  • Respond to the negative economic impacts of the COVID-19 public health emergency. This includes providing premium pay to workers performing essential work during COVID-19 public health emergencies.
  • Make necessary investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.
  • Provide for government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue caused by the COVID-19 public health emergency.

About $35.9 million was allocated to projects that haven’t received final approval by the council. That means these projects could still be changed or adjusted by the city manager’s office before they’re finally approved by the council. 

The unallocated funds mostly will go to cybersecurity and broadband upgrades on city property, transportation infrastructure projects and public Wi-Fi projects. Investments in broadband and Wi-Fi are a part of an overall strategic plan to improve connectivity in Fort Worth. 

The city’s community Wi-Fi program was born out of previous federal funds from the CARES Act. Its quick establishment was at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic..In an effort to target key areas without access, the city referred to Census data. 

Neighborhoods targeted by the broadband program: 

  • Stop Six
  • Ash Crescent 
  • Northside
  • Rosemont
  • Como

The program was successful, city staff said, in establishing a Wi-Fi network in all five neighborhoods. Technical issues related to staffing and design set the program back. The city also spent eight months working to establish an agreement with energy company Oncor to mount equipment on its poles; an agreement was not reached. 

Supply chain issues also prevented the city from acquiring necessary materials. To make up for gaps caused by the failed Oncor agreement, the city plans to establish new poles that will cover neighborhoods better. A portion of the ARPA funds, $2.7 million, could be used to purchase and install equipment. An additional $3.6 million of ARPA funds could be used to cover operating costs through December 2026.

“We need to get this project finished,” city of Fort Worth Grant Manager Catherine Perry said. 

Allocations spent on public-partnerships 

Of the 16 projects that already have received funding, eight are considered a public-private partnership. 

A public-private partnership is a long-term relationship between a government entity and private or public sector business. Typically these partnerships include contracts that give a business or nonprofit the authority to operate a publicly funded project. 

Public-private partnerships gained popularity over the past 20 years. They have become increasingly useful as government jobs have lost experienced employees to the public sector, Mary Scott Nabers, a consultant in public-private partnerships, said. 

“That is what Congress wanted to happen: Give this money to incentivize public officials to find other options for building infrastructure,” Nabers said. “Public-private partnerships are probably going to be our future because there is not enough (government) funding.”

Successful partnerships require buy-in from city staff and strong contracts with accountability measures like compliance standards and reporting requirements, Nabers said. 

Visit Fort Worth received the largest amount of support from ARPA dollars compared to other public-private partnerships. 

The Fort Worth Convention Center will receive the largest amount of funds from ARPA at $40 million. The funds will relocate the kitchens and demolish the annex on the east side of the exhibit halls. An additional $12 million will straighten out Commerce Street — allowing for future development of a hotel. The upgrades would typically be funded through the city’s hotel occupancy tax. 

“The pandemic impacted that funding source so dramatically,” Visit Fort Worth CEO Bob Jameson, said. “This allows the city to start that project sooner than we would be able to, to get it back on track.”

Tourism was one of the industries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. As travel slowed, tax income related to travel also stalled. Despite the pandemic, Visit Fort Worth continued to hold some events in Fort Worth throughout the pandemic. In June 2021, the U.S. Gymnastics Championships came to Dickies Arena and in December 2020, the National Finals Rodeo came to Fort Worth after its original host city, Las Vegas, imposed COVID-19 related restrictions. 

Still, revenue was down by about $11 million between 2019 and 2020. American Rescue Plan Act legislation specifically mentions tourism recovery as an acceptable use of federal dollars. 

“Our leaders … understand the role that tourism plays in the overall economic development strategy for the city,” Jameson said. “We sit down and talk about real opportunities that we have in front of us, we identify those and then we talk about potential uses that allow us to act quickly on other opportunities that have not yet surfaced.”

Child Care Associates received over $50 million in ARPA funds from nearby cities and Tarrant County in support of robust child care. Fort Worth recently contributed $7 million to set up three early childhood learning centers. Fort Worth City Council approved a lease agreement at a May 12 meeting that paves the way for the first of three early learning centers on Las Vegas Trail. 

Fort Worth child care providers also received money from the Texas Workforce Commission, which committed to disbursing  $3.45 billion from the federal government. A portion of the money went straight to Fort Worth Child Care providers, freeing up Child Care Associates to leverage city and county money for bigger priorities. 

“Those resources have had a pretty stabilizing effect,” Kara Waddell, CEO of Child Care Associates, said. 

After ensuring that current child care providers would be able to continue operating throughout the pandemic, Waddell and her team looked toward the future. 

“I think that was a turning point for our community,” Waddell said. “I think COVID helped people realize working families really, really need this. I think it kind of pulled the veil back a little bit on how fragile the system is.”

Through conversations with parents, educators, experts, city officials and county leaders, Child Care Associates devised a new approach to ensure that low-income families still have access to child care.

Through conversations and in-house expertise, Waddell realized that not only do low-income neighborhoods need higher quality child care, they sometimes need more child care infrastructure, like buildings and teachers — which required the creation of a whole new program.

“Changing the system for the long haul – that’s what we’re trying to do,” Waddell said. 

The project already is ramping up. Parents could expect to enroll their children in learning centers in three years. The potential project has benefitted from city and county leaders who are particularly supportive of access to child care. 

“Public solutions are a relay race, not a sprint,” Waddell said. 

The remaining nearly $28 million has to be allocated by 2026. 

“We’re going to work from the framework that was initially approved by the council, and then just work through the details at that point through interactions between the requester and city management,” Interim City Manager Zeno said. 

Emily Wolf contributed to this report.

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Rachel Behrndt

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for fortworthreport.org. She can be reached at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org