One of Waterville Community Land Trust’s houses on 181 Water St. in the South End on Sept. 24, 2018. Waterville and the land trust were awarded a $50,000 grant to develop housing in the South End. Morning Sentinel file

WATERVILLE — The city and Waterville Community Land Trust have been awarded $50,000 from the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Wells Fargo CommunityWINS Program to be used by the land trust to help create access to safe, affordable housing in a South End neighborhood.

The grant was one of only eight awarded to cities in the U.S., for a total of $1 million, given to recognize outstanding mayoral-based initiatives to help communities invest, strengthen and address housing affordability, according to a news release from the Mayors Conference and Wells Fargo.

The local, nonprofit land trust will use the funds for its Milliken Project, aimed at targeting one small neighborhood at a time in the South End.

“The 2020 CommunityWINS Grant Program is an opportunity to honor and showcase impactful affordable housing efforts that are making a real difference in communities across the country,” said Tom Cochran, chief executive officer and executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “We appreciate Wells Fargo and the Wells Fargo Foundation for their support of the CommunityWINS program, which also celebrates the leadership of mayors and city governments.”

Nancy Williams, vice president of the land trust’s Board of Directors, said Friday that she is thrilled Waterville was chosen for the award, which will be used to buy and renovate a permanently affordable home within the Milliken Project.

That project is named for the family of Daniel Libby Milliken, who developed the neighborhood in the area of Moor and Carrean streets in the city’s South End. The Milliken family sold land, and land with homes, to French Canadians who arrived in the South End and worked at local mills.

“WCLT believes that not only do all of us deserve to live in safe and attractive neighborhoods, but if our city is to attract good jobs, we must have desirable neighborhoods so that new employees wish to live in the city,” Williams said Friday in an email.  “We also want to make sure that our current residents are able to stay in their homes as neighborhoods are revitalized. WCLT is dedicated to making that happen.”

Williams brought the idea of establishing a community land trust to Waterville several years ago. She and others established the land trust in 2014, and started their work in the South End. The group seeks to help stabilize neighborhoods by acquiring homes, restoring or rehabilitating them and then offering them for sale to eligible people with low to moderate incomes. The land trust has done so with two homes so far and accepts donated homes, renovates them as needed and sells them to people who are eligible.

Run by an all-volunteer board of directors, the land trust is able to maintain home affordability by retaining the land on which the homes are located. Homeowners may sell the homes later if they wish, but the land trust maintains ownership of the land and a substantial share of any profit on the sale.

While the land trust plans to eventually work citywide, officials decided to focus first on the South End, once a hub of activity and home to many Franco Americans who moved to the city from Canada at the turn of the 20th century to work at area mills. The South End Neighborhood Association has been working for 20 years to help revitalize the neighborhood.

Williams said Friday that the City Council and mayors have supported development of parks and playgrounds in the city’s least privileged neighborhoods and, along with the South End Neighborhood Association, provided land for the Land Trust’s Kennebec River Neighborhood Park on Water Street. The city also set up the South End Neighborhood Improvement Fund, for capital improvements, and the council joined with the mayor and Land Trust to support the Milliken Project. The Neighborhood Association, its Quality of Life Committee, and Waterville Habitat for Humanity are partners on the Milliken Project, according to Williams.

The land trust, she said, also is supporting the city’s application to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Communities Challenge. If it wins, more opportunity for resources would open up, according to Williams.

“We hope that nonprofits that focus on food security, recreation, and the arts will join us,” she said. “Kennebec Messalonskee Trails are making great progress on their new trails in the South End. Together, we know we can do so much more.”

Williams and other representatives of the land trust approached the City Council in September to ask that the city become a member of the U.S. Council of Mayors, which they said would enable the land trust to apply for grants. The council approved the request, which included agreeing to fund a $2,000 membership fee.

Mayor Jay Coelho said Friday in a phone interview that he was excited to learn of the grant award.

“It’s great — I’m very happy,” Coelho said. “It’s something my predecessor (Nick Isgro) and I talked about and he was on board. Nancy Williams has done a great job doing what she’s doing.”

When Coelho was running for mayor last year, he emphasized the need to help revitalize all areas of the city including the South End, where he wants to see infrastructure improved. He said he and Council Chairman Erik Thomas are looking at ways to fund road projects there.

“It speaks to what Nancy’s been doing and I think the South End has a rich tradition,” Coelho said of the grant award. “People care about the South End.”

Waterville was chosen for the award from 139 applicants from small, medium and large cities. Others awarded grants were Denver, Colorado; Anchorage, Alaska; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Frankfort, Kentucky; Chicago, Illinois; Newark, New Jersey; and Brownsville, Texas.

Nate Hurst, president of the Wells Fargo Foundation, said that even before the coronavirus pandemic caused the economic fallout, many vulnerable families were struggling with housing solutions.

“To foster a truly inclusive recovery, we have to recognize that the challenge of housing is even more profound in communities of color and be intentional about prioritizing the needs of underserved communities,” Hurst says in the news release. “CommunityWINS is an important example of the public and private sectors working together to help more people have a safe, affordable place to call home.”

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