New alliance forming to fund lake projects

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Birds fly over Chautauqua Lake through the Friday morning fog.

The sun has begun to set on the Chautauqua Lake Management Commission and give rise to the dawn of the Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Management Alliance, a group that will work to fund the arsenal of efforts aimed at maintaining Chautauqua’s vitality.

The CLMC was formed in 2005 to develop management plans based on survey and study findings that effectively tackle the problems facing Chautauqua Lake’s health. The commission finalized its watershed management plan in September 2010 and is currently in the process of publishing a 15-chapter plan to combat vegetation growth in the lake. While the CLMC relied on monies from the lake communities to operate, the new lake plans require a bigger pie to slice from than local resources can offer.

“The CLMC was an unofficial ad hoc commission formed by legislation to identify what projects needed doing,” said Mark Geise, deputy director for the Chautauqua Planning and Economic Development Department. “It had no checkbook or legal status. We really needed a party to chase after funding, so we used the commission to find what needed doing and how we could implement it.”

According to Geise, retiring the planning commission and adopting a new organization that funded actual efforts was the logical next step toward lake management. Even though the CLMA is still in its formative stages, finalizing its IRS paperwork this week to become an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, it’s already begun modeling itself after a similar organizational structure that’s been managing the watershed in Chagrin River, Ohio, for the past 15 years.

“We studied other commissions, but the one that really stood out to us was the Chagrin River Alliance,” said Lyle Hajdu, chairman and volunteer for the CLMC. “We saw they did studies, came back with recordings, then pursued state and federal funding. They ended up bringing like $40 to 50 million in outside money back home.”

The CLMA will rely on grant writing to drum up funding for projects surrounding Chautauqua Lake. Geise said the alliance will leverage local money as matching grant funds to bring more money into the county. An example of funding that could be utilized is the Chautauqua “bed tax” that places a 5 percent occupancy tax on all rental lodging units in the county. Three-fifths of the tax revenue is used to increase tourism, while the remaining two-fifths is used for the betterment of Chautauqua Lake health.

The CLMA could potentially use the bed tax funds, or some other kind of donation/funding, to green-light grants from any combination of contributors whether it be an NGO, private foundation, or state and federal agencies like the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers.

The new alliance has the potential to increase the effectiveness of lake management efforts exponentially as it evolves in the next few years. According to Geise, the organizational structure will begin with one executive director in the first year, and hopefully grow to add another part-time grant writer in its second year. The alliance will expand its pyramidal organization to match its increases in funding.

“I hate to put a number on it, but I would hope that we bring in $2 to 2.5 million per year by the end of year,” Geise said. “An entity that has its act together has a far greater chance of getting funding. Hopefully, we can become that agency that’s the model on how to work together to do that.”

However, grant acquisition is not a guaranteed goal, and there are multiple factors that go into getting approved for funding beginning with demonstrating the need for it. This is where the Chautauqua Lake Management Commission’s studies and plans come into play. If the alliance can convince funders that there is a real necessity for donation by showing the lake’s need, and their plan to meet it, it will have a much better chance at getting approved.

Geise emphasized the importance of research, like the CLMC’s plans and studies, when it comes to bringing funding into the county.

“I really want it to be clear that these studies do something when it comes to the lake,” he said. “Lots of people complain that, ‘Oh, all these studies just cost money and sit on a shelf,’ when in reality, they’re helping us bring more money in for all these projects that help in the long run. The table is set in engineering first, then the studies make it possible to implement our plans.”