By Amanda Breitbach Ragsdale, Miles City Star

Another step forward has been taken in the effort to replace an aging and inadequate sewer system in Rural Improvement District #1, which runs from Clark Street north to Valley Drive East, bound on the east by the city limits line and on the west by Kootenai and Cheyenne avenues.

Local leaders learned a few weeks ago that the project had been awarded a Treasure State Endowment Program (TSEP) grant for $750,000, which will go a long way toward paying for the new sewer system, expected to cost about $1.5 million.

Securing the grant was truly a team effort, said Mike Coryell, director of the Miles City Area Economic Development Council.

The Custer County Commissioners laid the groundwork for the project, working with the Midwest Assistance Program to conduct an income survey of residents in the area and with Dowl HKM engineers to develop a plan for the new system. Former commission chairman Gary Matthews and former commissioner Milo Huber, as well as current board chairman Jack Nesbit and Coryell went door to door, gathering income information that helped qualify the project for certain grant programs.

Grant writer Julie Korkow of the Southeastern Montana Development Corporation developed the proposal, improving on a grant request written in 1998 to help the project rate highly enough to be funded, and SEMDC staff kept political leaders apprised of its progress.

In the state Legislature, Rep. Bill McChesney was then instrumental in maintaining funding for the TSEP program, which narrowly escaped a funding cut of 50 percent.

“There was such a team involved in this, because it wasn’t a quick effort,” said Coryell, noting that the project has been a priority of the county since the 1990s.

An earlier effort to replace the sewer system failed, despite the awarding of an $850,000 grant, because of a lack of local matching funds.

Since then, residents’ sewer rates have been raised twice to create an adequate fund of local dollars.

Before he left office in January, Matthews made the project his highest priority, and Coryell said the success of this grant proposal was “a tribute” to his efforts.

Two more grant applications are pending, including a $450,000 request from the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program and a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program for the remaining balance.

McChesney said his contribution to the effort called for a lot of “political juggling,” as he and other legislators sought to maintain funding for development projects.

The governor’s budget called for TSEP funds to be rolled over into the general fund, eliminating a lot of money that rural communities use to improve and build infrastructure.

“TSEP projects are so critical for city and county projects,” said McChesney. “It would have been a significant loss to eastern Montana.”

Investing in infrastructure “sends out a very positive message” to attract both new businesses and new residents, he noted.

Coryell thanked the commissioners for their support of the MCAEDC and SEMDC, noting that for an initial investment of $5,000, a grant for $750,000 was a pretty good payoff.

Korkow said the regional council fills a need for small communities that can’t support the cost of their own grant writing and coordination staff.

Current commissioners Nesbit, Keith Holmlund and Vicki Hamilton expressed satisfaction and relief that the project is moving toward completion.

“This area has been neglected for years,” said Nesbit. “We’re just really excited about this (project).”