To offset an overall slowdown in privately funded construction projects here that came as a result of the recession, one Spokane-based engineering firm has diversified its approach to securing work and remaining profitable.
Belsby Engineering LLC principal and founder Brian Belsby says that starting in 2008, the firm of eight employees shifted its focus to landing grant-funded jobs for public infrastructure improvement projects in small towns and communities across the Inland Northwest.
Not only has that concentration helped the firm stay busy as the number of new, privately funded developments shrank, Belsby says the company has seen its annual revenues noticeably increase in the last four years, though he declines to disclose annual revenues.
"Up until 2008, we did a variety of work, but most was for private (sector) clients," Belsby says. "Since then, we began to focus on grant writing and finding little communities in Eastern Washington with a great need. It wasn't that hard, because the state budget cuts hurt those communities. They had barely enough funding for a planner, engineer, or a grant writer, and didn't have a lot of ability to do things."
Belsby Engineering, founded here in 2000 and based in a 1,600-square-foot office at 1325 W. First, specializes in the planning and engineering of water, sewer, road, and drainage projects, as well as offering services in land surveying, grant writing, and project and construction management.
Belsby says the state budget cuts in recent years have led to a decrease in financial assistance received by rural Washington municipalities to maintain public infrastructure, such as roads and utilities, and by local fire, water, and conservation districts.
Since 2009, Belsby Engineering has procured more than $15.7 million to fund well over a dozen public infrastructure projects, he says.
"A lot of the towns have been in disrepair for years, even when they had an operations and maintenance budget and staff to care for them, but now they can't repair aging facilities," Belsby says. "For instance, Almira (Wash.) has an 80-year-old water system they are still working with, and when you have pipes and a reservoir that is 80 years old, it can break at any time."
He says the communities the firm focuses on working with are small and rural with populations ranging from a few hundred, such as Cusick, Wash., up to communities with populations into the thousands, such as Dillon, Mont.
Other towns and unincorporated communities Belsby Engineering has worked with or currently is working with include Sprague, Hunters, and Spangle, Wash. The firm also has worked with local public and economic development councils.
The most feasible approach to aid those small communities needing public infrastructure improvements, Belsby says, was to refine the firm's grant-writing skills to try to obtain state and federal funding specifically allocated for such projects.
Once a town or community in need of such improvements is identified, Belsby says, the firm's engineers work with community leaders to plan the project, acquire necessary permits, write a grant request, and help manage the project from the design and engineering stages through the completion of construction.
He says most of the funding for its projects in recent years has come from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Funds then are funneled through state agencies, such as ecology, transportation, or commerce departments, which manage the money and oversee its use.
Most of the grant-funded, public projects occur over a two- or three-year period, starting when the firm initially hears about the need for improvements to the time construction is completed, Belsby says. Researching and compiling a grant request can take up to a year, he says.
"It's a hugely variable process," Belsby says. "Some requests could be one page long, while there are some that range between 50 and 1,000 pages. Generally, the best sources of grants are very competitive and require a lot of research and writing to be competitive."
During the last four years, Belsby Engineering has started or completed grant-funded projects in Washington, Idaho, and Montana, he says.
So far this year, the firm has secured more than $3.5 million in grant funds to continue or start work on a handful of projects.
Belsby says the Washington state Department of Commerce last month approved a $1 million grant request the firm prepared that will pay for the engineering and construction of a new water reservoir in Almira, about 80 miles west of Spokane.
Additionally, he says, the agency approved a separate request for $925,000 to fund a project that's to replace and repair the main water system in Hatton, Wash., a town of about 100 people located 96 miles southwest of Spokane.
"This will have a huge impact on these towns," Belsby says.
He says many small towns similar to those his firm has worked with have seen populations shrink in recent years because of the lack of jobs and the number of small businesses closing.
As Belsby Engineering has completed more projects for rural communities across the region, Belsby says the company also has established professional relationships with many of the agencies responsible for doling out the state and federal dollars to fund those infrastructure improvements.
"You have to get the story out there of the great need these little towns are in, and you have to get those agencies and towns together," he says.
Meeting with local state legislators also is crucial to ensuring the communities needing the most assistance receive the necessary funds, Belsby adds.
He says he believes the uptick in work the firm is seeing lately isn't only because of its decision to diversify years ago, but also because the local economy is starting to pick back up, with a slight rise in inquires for the firm's expertise on private-sector developments.
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