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How myNKY Nano Grants turn ideas into action

Catherine Hamilton Hicks is using her myNKY Nano Grant to promote Slush Puppie's origins in Dayton

A myNKY Nano Grant paid for this artwork, which is being donated to the Tharp Dayton Heritage Museum

Catherine Hamilton Hicks' husband dressed in an old Slush Puppie mascot costume to greet runners in Dayton last month


A $250 contribution might not sound like a lot of money when you’re planning an event, but don’t tell that to citizens in three Northern Kentucky communities participating in a pilot program for myNKY Nano Grants.
 
Every dollar counts when you’re starting a neighborhood event or activation from scratch, but the help and validation gained from winning a competitive grant is often more important than the money itself.
 
“This grant is like a match starting a fire for me and, I hope, for Dayton,” says Catherine Hamilton Hicks, who won a Nano Grant for her efforts to honor the founder of Slush Puppie, a Dayton native. “It means a lot for the myNKY people to say they like my idea and they’re willing to write a check to support it.”
 
A partnership among Skyward, The Catalytic Fund and the Center for Great Neighborhoods has awarded two rounds of $250 grants in three communities: Dayton, Florence and Pendleton County. The partnership chose them to test the impact of community vibrancy support in urban, suburban and rural settings, respectively.
 
Tara Johnson, manager of development services at The Catalytic Fund, has been overseeing the pilot program on behalf of Skyward, which is providing the funding. A total of 12 projects have been awarded Nano Grants, and she says the partners will assess the program once all projects are completed to see if they’ll expand it throughout Skyward’s nine-county Northern Kentucky footprint.
Tara Johnson
“We were interested in thinking of this Nano Grant program as an experiment about making connections across a geographic area, which is why we chose a city, a suburb and an outlying county,” Johnson says. “For the applicants, the existence of funding and the interest from these partner organizations has been a little spark to help them get going. The $250 actually means more than just the money.”
 
The Center for Great Neighborhoods has been making community grants for over 10 years in Covington, starting its own nano grant program two years ago. The organization brought a wealth of expertise working with nontraditional grant applicants to the pilot program.
 
“We have 10 years experience helping turn ideas into action,” says Kate Esarey, the Center’s program manager for community development. “Nano grants are low-risk for us since it’s not that much money. Our motto has always been ‘When in doubt, fund.’”
 
‘The stars are aligning’

Hicks came up with her grant-winning idea while looking through obituaries in the newspaper.
 
Reading Will Radcliff’s death notice, she discovered that the Slush Puppie founder had been born in Dayton. It’s common knowledge that the frozen drink company originated in Cincinnati, but Hicks was intrigued by the founder’s connection to her community and thought there might be an opportunity to build some promotional buzz about Dayton.
 
Hicks found an old Slush Puppie blue dog mascot costume from the 1970s on eBay and talked the owner into selling it to her for $500. She found a company in Northside that created the original mascot costumes for the Cincinnati-based company and had them clean and restore her new purchase, then put husband Jeremy Hicks in the suit in August to greet runners in the River City Relay along the Dayton riverwalk.
 
“He was just a great sport,” Hicks says. “It was 90 degrees, and he was dying inside that thing. Jeremy high-fived runners as they came into Dayton, and people started asking about the costume and word about the Slush Puppie connection got out.”
 
Hicks applied for a myNKY Nano Grant to commission a local artist to paint an image of the blue dog mascot to hang in the community’s Tharp Dayton Heritage Museum. Having won the grant and receiving the finished piece from artist Tony Dotson, Hicks has now organized a celebration around the Radcliff and Slush Puppie connection for Saturday. Oct. 1.
 
That’s the same day of Dayton’s second annual Kite Festival, which Hicks has organized with the Dayton Civic Club. A parade starts at noon at Sixth and Vine Streets, with neighborhood schoolchildren riding decorated bikes while wearing Slush Puppie hats. Activities continue at Gil Lynn Park, with the first 600 kids receiving a free kite.
 
“The stars are aligning for Dayton,” says Hicks, who serves on the city’s planning and zoning board and helped get the community pier project included in Dayton’s riverfront design plans.
 
Hicks is donating the Slush Puppie art and costume to the museum and has contacted the brand’s corporate owner and Radcliff’s daughter to see if they’ll support her idea to build a permanent public statue of the dog mascot in Dayton.
 
“I love how these Nano Grants consistently develop into something bigger than they originally seem,” Johnson says.
 
‘See the light bulbs come on’

The Nano Grant program is a support tool created from Skyward’s myNKY Plan, the five-year community planning vision for Northern Kentucky launched last summer.
 
After receiving 15,000 responses and ideas from a public engagement process across Northern Kentucky, Skyward distilled the input into myNKY’s four major focus areas: jobs, health, education and community vibrancy. The community vibrancy goal was defined as “intentionally fostering an inclusive, creative and connected community.”
 
Skyward contracted with Johnson and The Catalytic Fund to implement programs under the community vibrancy umbrella, and after meeting with Northern Kentucky arts and culture leaders they decided to test a broader version of the Center for Great Neighborhoods’ grants system.
 
The Center has given out more than $140,000 to Covington residents in the past two years through Creative Community Grants ($5,000 to artists offering creative solutions to local challenges) and Nano Grants ($250 to creative projects that bring people together). That’s in addition to $338,000 in Place Matters Neighborhood Grants the Center distributed through the end of 2015.
 
“The Center has expertise in this application and grant process,” Johnson says. “They talk with people before they apply, go over their concept and help them refine it before they apply in order to improve their chances of getting the grant. They’re always asking, ‘What problem are you trying to solve? How is your idea a unique solution?’”
 
Esarey says she suggested the same simple application process for the myNKY grants as with the Center’s own nano grants. Applications were available online as well as on paper, and a Spanish language version was also created.
 
“Our thought was to make it easy, not intimidating, since most of the people applying had never been involved with grants before,” she says. “We’re now providing specific recommendations to the winners and challenging them to break down barriers in their communities.”
 
The first round of winners was announced in July, with the second round announced last week.
 
Several winning projects have already launched, including the first in a series of Dayton Storytime events and 15 stewards signing up to manage a Little Free Library in locations throughout Pendleton County. Organizers of the Sept. 24 Ewe-Nique Art Walk have commissioned local artists and organizations to get creative with images of sheep to be displayed in downtown Falmouth storefronts to promote the popular Kentucky Wool Festival Oct. 7-9.
 
Johnson says she adjusted outreach efforts between the first and second application rounds in order to make sure as many residents as possible in Dayton, Florence and Pendleton County knew about the grants program.
 
“I called more people and made presentations to local groups,” she says. “We wanted to make sure everyone in those communities had the opportunity to apply. If we want Northern Kentucky to be a region that’s welcoming, connected and known for creativity, we need programs like this Nano Grant pilot. It’s been very rewarding for me to see the light bulbs come on as we meet with citizens to explore their ideas.”
 
The grant-making partnership will wait to analyze the pilot program after all 12 of the winning projects have been implemented and attendance numbers and outreach metrics have been crunched. Johnson says she and Skyward will need to think through future expansion and be intentional about where to go in terms of both geography and programming.
 
“We need to concentrate on finding ways to keep this program focused on low-cost, high-impact projects,” she says.

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