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Finding funds in the crowd

With Rowan County and other jurisdictions across the state looking at much reduced state allocations for parks and recreation investment in the future, we’re likely to see scaled-back ambitions for public amenities such as greenways or bike paths or neighborhood parks like Spencer Woods.
As a story in Sunday’s Post described, our community and region have benefitted immensely from the state’s Natural Heritage Trust Fund, the Conservation Tax Credit and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, all of which sustained funding cuts or outright repeal in the budget just approved in Raleigh. Because all citizens have access to the resources protected and enhanced through those funds, there’s certainly an argument that the funding cuts are shortsighted and will have a broad and harmful impact on our quality of life.
Given budget realities, however, are there ways to at least partially offset those and other cuts — on a smaller scale, at least — so that worthy projects can proceed?
Some municipalities believe so, and they’re taking an innovative approach to the funding issue by seeking support from individual donors through the social-media driven financing method known as crowdfunding. While the arts and business communities have been using Internet-based crowdfunding to support artistic projects or small-scale entrepreneurial ventures, it hasn’t caught on widely with government entities — yet. That may be about to change.
Raleigh has launched a pilot initiative in which it will use crowdfunding to raise money for some modest projects the city can’t afford in its current budget — things like bicycle racks, bus shelters and greenway benches. Raleigh’s initiative follows cities elsewhere that have successfully used crowdsourcing. Kansas City recently raised more than $420,000 from citizen donors to finance a public-bike-sharing program. Philadelphia has used it to help raise funds for a city skateboard park and a community garden in an inner-cty neighborhood.
Websites have sprung up to help connect citizen donors with unfunded projects. For instance, at http://www.citizinvestor.com or http://neighborly.ly municipalities can submit civic projects in need of support. Potential donors can scan the projects and make an online contribution. The site also gives citizens the opportunity to petition for new projects local government might consider.
Crowdfunding isn’t going to replace the tens of millions of dollars lost through budget cutbacks, and its successes shouldn’t become a rationale for legislative bodies to abdicate more funding obligations. But in lean times, in some cases, it’s a way for municipalities to leverage social media to their advantage and gain citizen support for civic improvements that might otherwise languish on the drawing board.

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