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When Village Manager Steve Williamson interviewed Colleen Blank for capital improvement & grants manager, her skill set didn’t exactly fit the position, he said.

“But on closer look, there was something about her. An innate smarts and drive, the ability to look to the future,” Williamson said.

Whether it’s beach renourishment, a theater program, park restoration or the $248 million “Big Dig” infrastructure project, Blank has turned out to be the Village’s secret financial weapon.

“She has helped bring in more than $12 million in the last two years,” Williamson said. “To put that in context, that is equal to 15% of our budget over the same time.”

For taxpayers, that’s found money.

For many those who toil mining for grants – and it is toiling – the work is often unrecognized. 

“It is a little bit of a complex, nuanced process,” Blank said. 

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“When you write your proposal, you first need to make sure that whatever project you’re proposing is in line with your strategic vision, because it’s very easy to think that, ‘Oh, this funding is available, let’s come up with a project.”

Blank came to Key Biscayne via St. Louis, leaving urban and outdoor planning firm SWT Design.  She is a native of Ohio and got her masters degree in urban planning from the University of North Carolina.

“The thing about the private sector, from my experience, you tend to get focused on a particular type of work, that you end up getting good at, and you keep doing over and over again for different clients,” Blank said.

In the public sector, especially a small municipality, Blank found she could work on a lot of different types of projects with a lot of different industries. 

“I wanted to be a part of the project actually getting done, whatever that project would be,” she said. “I think that was really enticing for me.”

It’s not all about the grants. Blank dabbles in ceramics, loves to cook, garden and renovating her house. She plays basketball about once a week.

Among Blank’s wins is an $885,000 state grant to help complete the first phase of replacing the stormwater system in the neighborhood around the elementary school. She also helped secure $4.4 million in low-interest loans for the project. 

Recently, Blank nabbed $10,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to fund a playwriting program for residents in partnership with City Theatre in Miami.

“It’s really opened up our eyes as an administration that we do have compelling stories to tell to these agencies, and they are very interested in helping us realize the vision that we have for our community,” she said.

Key Biscayne is often seen as a wealthy enclave by agencies and hardly in need of taxpayer money. In the grant world this is called “lack of social vulnerability” and has led to the Village not getting grants for reasonable projects – such as building berms to protect the shoreline.

Blank works with a team of other  officials, including Resilience Chief Roland Samimy, Parks Director Todd Hofferberth, as well as certain members of the police and fire departments. They all can wield a mean pen when it comes to writing grant proposals.

 “You can always mention the $219,300 grant that I got from FDEM (Florida Division of Emergency Management) that literally took me like 15 minutes to write up,” Samimy said.

Samimy and Blank also teamed up to nab two grants worth $320,000 for the Freebee transportation service that has expanded to nine electrically powered GEM cars.

Blank has proved crucial to the resilient infrastructure program, the “Big Dig,” that will rely on grants to defray costs moving forward.

“We are now poised to begin protecting our shorelines, upgrading our stormwater systems, improving our roads and undergrounding our utilities,” Williamson said. “I am thoroughly impressed with her work ethics and the success she has brought to the Village.”

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JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

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JOHN PACENTI is the executive editor of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.