Shawnee still struggling to give out federal COVID-19 relief to small businesses

Several major city events in Shawnee are canceled or postponed. Outdoor pools are back this summer with restrictions. Bureaucratic red tape continues to prevent local businesses from accessing some federal

Several major city events in Shawnee are canceled or postponed. Outdoor pools are back this summer with restrictions. Bureaucratic red tape continues to prevent local businesses from accessing some federal relief dollars.

These are just a handful of the rippling effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as detailed by city staff in a presentation to the Shawnee City Council this week.

Here’s an overview of some of those impacts.

What’s canceled, rescheduled and up in the air

Several city events this year have already been canceled, including:

  • St. Patrick’s Day Parade
  • Duck Race
  • April Showers Craft Fair
  • Old Shawnee Days in June

Meanwhile, the annual Tour de Shawnee bicycling event will take place May 2.

Also, the Moonlight Market, the city’s revamped monthly farmers market, begins May 20 and will occur the third Thursday of every month.

“I’m disappointed about Old Shawnee Days but really proud of the fact that our city’s been able to keep all of our facilities essentially up and running,” said Councilmember Kurt Knappen. “I appreciate that we’ve had a can-do attitude on how we can eventually get back to normal here.”

The city is planning to reschedule its spring recycling event with Merriam. Additionally, the city is still deciding whether and how to host Parked, an annual event with food trucks, fireworks and music out at Stump Park.

The tentative date for Parked is Friday, June 25.

Finally, some councilmembers have continued to express their wish for the entire city council to return to meeting in person. The city council has met remotely for most of the past 12 months, with the exception of a handful of councilmembers who have physically returned to the dais.

In the below video, discussion of city events and an update on COVID-19 cases and vaccinations begins at 28:29.

Outdoor pools are opening with COVID-19 restrictions

Shawnee closed its pools last summer during the COVID-19 pandemic. This summer, the city plans to open both the Thomas A. Soetaert and Splash Cove aquatic centers. Photo of Soetaert courtesy city of Shawnee.

Shawnee is planning to open its outdoor pools this summer. The opening date is Memorial Day on May 29 for Thomas A. Soetaert and Splash Cove aquatic centers. Both pools were closed last summer.

Sean Keenan, program manager of aquatics for the city, gave a rundown of the plans for the two pools to accommodate COVID-19 mitigation protocols. These include:

  • Requiring masks be worn when out of the water
  • Adjusting the facility capacity by about 50% for both pools (from roughly 1,400 to 700 at Soetaert, and from 800 to 400 at Splash Cove)
  • Possibly changing hours of operation at Splash Cove
  • Encouraging residents to use the new splash pads at Erfurt and Wilder Bluff parks (Wilder Bluff is not yet open)
  • Assigned spacing in some gathering areas such as the lines for the slides and diving board
  • Enforcing physical distancing
  • “Aggressive” cleaning regimens for high-contact surfaces

Councilmembers Knappen and Tammy Thomas raised some concern about requiring that masks be worn instead of simply encouraging people to wear them.

City Manager Nolan Sunderman said the city right now is following Johnson County’s public health order regarding masks, which is set to expire at the end of April, before pools open.

Pool staff will receive Red Cross training that is modified for COVID-19 protocols. Plus, the city needs to hire lifeguards and swim instructors for the upcoming season — at least 40 new lifeguards, 12 new swim instructors and six pool attendants.

The city pools will adjust to school hours on Aug. 9, and then close for the season on Labor Day on Sept. 6.

Discussion for aquatics begins at 48:40 of the embedded video above.

Giving COVID-19 relief to businesses

“I don’t think I’m alone on the council to say that I’m certainly frustrated and I think that staff are frustrated with our true inability to give this money away,” said Councilmember Lisa Larson-Bunnell. Red tape has prevented the city from giving away any of the $112,000 in federal COVID-19 relief to struggling businesses. File photo of downtown Shawnee.

Bureaucratic red tape has prevented the city from distributing any of the $112,000 in federal relief to local businesses hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, city staff say.

None of the $112,000 in funds from the federal Community Development Block Grant Coronavirus (CDBG-CV) program have been spent.

Meanwhile, the city has distributed nearly $94,000 from its own match of $112,000 to 20 local businesses.

Lauren Grashoff, neighborhood planner, said the city was able to spend part of its match because staff created a less restrictive process to distribute the funds. One such business, Grammy’s Walls of Clay, benefited from the lower barriers.

Grashoff said that due to the nature of the program, many federal requirements hinder the funds from being spent. Some of it is restricted to avoid duplication of benefits.

“These are essentially the last funds that are allowed to be spent from any of those federal rescue or emergency funds,” Grashoff said. “This is really the last pot of money that is allowed to be withdrawn from.”

Some councilmembers shared frustrations with the program and appreciation that the city spent what it could.

“I don’t think I’m alone on the council to say that I’m certainly frustrated and I think that staff are frustrated with our true inability to give this money away,” said Councilmember Lisa Larson-Bunnell. “It seems like the most ridiculous thing that we are trying to do something good and it’s very difficult to do.”

The city has about $226,900 in federal coronavirus relief funds available for businesses and public service providers. Some councilmembers said they want to see flexibility and creativity in distributing the remaining funds.

The $112,000 is in the city’s newly created Shawnee Economic Recovery Assistance (SERA) program to help businesses with rent/mortgage assistance.

About $18,000 of the city’s match remains with the entire federal portion of $112,000. City staff estimates the funds could support at least 26 more businesses.

The city expects to open a second round of SERA grants this summer.

Meanwhile, about $39,400 of CDBG-CV funds are still available for assistance to public service providers, as well as a $36,955 match from the city.

With the new $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package as part of the American Rescue Plan, Shawnee is expected to receive an additional $7,160,000.

Sunderman said the city is learning details about how the new money can be spent, but in general, the funds can be used to make up for revenue losses and pay for infrastructure (i.e. water, broadband network, sewer), premium pay or direct assistance to groups in need.

Discussion begins at 1:03:34 of the embedded video above.