Newly Created Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers Hold Promise for the Future

Solar panels installed at Klein Farms in Champaign County, Illinois.
Klein Farms solar installation (Champaign County, Illinois). Photo credit: Amanda Pankau, Prairie Rivers Network

As the extreme weather increases, smoke from wildfires inundates the region, and the energy sector shifts from coal and renewables, environmental justice and the connection to water resources is an increasingly prominent discussion topic. Starting in 2019 with a Network mini-grant to explore the intersection of equity and green infrastructure, Lisa Merrifield, Community Development Specialist at the University of Illinois Extension and member of the Network Leadership Team, and partners across Extension began exploring ways to serve communities in Illinois and share knowledge across the region.

In 2022, USEPA set out to fund Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers (TCTAC) across the country to help underserved communities access state and federal funding for environmental infrastructure improvements. With the foundation laid by that initial Network mini-grant, and with leadership from University of Minnesota, University of Illinois Extension partnered with a team of Extension and NGO professionals from around EPA Region 5 to secure funding for one of these centers.

University of Illinois will receive $750,000 over five years to form and coordinate a technical assistance center in Illinois. Focus will be on helping rural and underserved communities, including those identified as environmental justice communities by USEPA and those experiencing coal power plant closures, build capacity and develop plans to embrace the unique qualities and lifestyle goals of the community. 

Newton Power Plant in Newton, Illinois.
Newton Power Plant (Newton, Illinois). Photo credit: Amanda Pankau, Prairie Rivers Network

This summer the University of Illinois Extension team is working with state agencies, local governments, and NGOs in Illinois to identify the primary gaps and challenges in the state. In the fall, the team will begin a five-year partnership with Amanda Pankau, who is the Energy Campaign Coordinator at the Illinois-based Prairie Rivers Network. Amanda has worked on energy transition projects and the related water quality implications for the last six years and has an extensive network of public and private partnerships and a track record of helping communities successfully compete for state and federal funding.

In addition to Lisa Merrifield, the team will also include University of Illinois Extension’s Nancy Ouedraogo and Linda Derhak. Nancy has a background in community development and ten years of experience providing targeted local government programming, strategic planning services, surveying, engagement, and cultural competency training for communities across the state. Linda Derhak is a Master of Urban Planning student who is conducting a formal needs assessment of Illinois as her capstone project and helping the team launch the Illinois technical assistance center in partnership with other players across the state and region.

Once fully staffed, the Illinois TCTAC will help communities navigate federal grant application systems, provide guidance on community inclusion, lead community-specific strategic planning, and help communities secure and administer funding to address legacy pollution and invest in clean energy technologies.

As part of the University of Minnesota TCTAC, University of Illinois Extension will work with Extension and non-profit partners in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio to unlock federal funding support for environmental and energy projects in remote, rural, and disadvantaged communities in our states. Each state will establish “one-stop shops” for grant and planning assistance.

Lisa Merrifield, Illinois Extension

Lisa Merrifield.

Lisa Merrifield is the sustainable community specialist within University of Illinois Extension’s Community and Economic Development Team. Lisa helps Illinois communities become more sustainable and resilient. She works with University of Illinois faculty, Extension specialists, Extension Educators and community leaders to identify opportunities and approaches that help local governments and organizations address the challenges they face.

Prior to joining Illinois Extension, Lisa served as assistant director for the Illinois Water Resources Center and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and as the executive director of the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable. Lisa has over 20 years of experience working to build sustainability in Illinois and around the Great Lakes. She has a Bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a Master’s degree in Urban Planning, with a focus on natural resource planning.

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