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John Zakian (white shirt) has been involved in several projects that included aspects of affordable housing, including the Blu on Broadway project.
Although he has worked his last day as an employee of the City of Minot, John Zakian isn’t quite done helping the city’s National Disaster Resilience program.
The City Council and Zakian agreed to a six-month consulting contract so he can help the Minot staff through the transition period.
“At the end of six months, I will become irrelevant. I intend to work with the City staff to bring them completely up to speed on what is required under federal rules, so that after the six months, they won’t need to ask me anything,” he said. “I’m leaving at a point where I have extreme confidence that they will complete the job at hand.”
Zakian came to the City of Minot from New York in June 2017, although he knew plenty about the community before he arrived here.
Before he was hired in Minot, Zakian was contracted with New York City as the area worked to recover from Hurricane Sandy.
“I reached a point where I really wanted to have more direct input by being a grant administrator rather than an adviser,” Zakian said. “When this job was offered to me, I didn’t hesitate. I was very clear that I didn’t care about the size of the city; I was more focused on the opportunity that Minot offered to have a direct, beneficial impact as the city recovered from the flood.”
So instead of helping New York City utilize some $4.3 billion, Zakian was tasked with assisting Minot in its efforts to become a more resilient community by using the $74.3 million it was awarded from Housing and Urban Development.
Minot wasn’t a complete unknown to Zakian, either. In 2011, while working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Birmingham, Ala., some of Zakian’s co-workers were reassigned to Minot after the flood.
“Some of us were asking, ‘Where is Minot, N.D.?’ But I stayed in contact with those folks who had been sent to Minot, so I had a general idea of what was going on here,” he said.
Later, when Minot and New York City were among the communities competing for disaster funds, Zakian was able to gather a lot of information on the cities that were eventually awarded disaster funds.
“When I walked in here back in 2017, I already had an idea of what needed to be done and I had a good basic understanding of what this city was facing,” he said. “I’ve always felt that was an advantage for me and for Minot.”
Navigating demanding and sometimes cumbersome federal regulations can be something of a maze, which many Minot officials experienced after the city was awarded the grant funding. Zakian, though, is fluent in the languages of bureaucratic red tape, government regulations, and substantial amendments.
“I went from working with New York City’s $4.3 billion to helping Minot utilize $74.3 million,” he said. “The federal process is much the same, just on a different scale. I think I easily adapted from a city of millions to a city of thousands.”
Minot’s priorities in utilizing the NDR funds included acquiring property for the Mouse River Enhanced Flood Protection Project and creating additional affordable housing, among other projects that the City included in its initial action plan to HUD.
“One of the goals from HUD is to encourage grantees to use NDR funds as leverage for additional investments,” Zakian said. “Almost every project that’s coming out of our NDR funds is partnered with other sources of funding, which really elevates Minot in the eyes of HUD. It sets a good precedent for the city to show that we can successfully implement HUD’s policies.”
Several of Minot’s affordable housing projects, including Blu on Broadway, Souris Heights, and Park South, have utilized a wide variety of additional funding sources in combination with the NDR funds. Tax increment financing, the Bank of North Dakota’s Flex Pace program, and others have helped Minot complete several projects in the past few years.
HUD extended the original deadline to utilize the NDR funding; all money must be spent by Sept. 30, 2023. Currently, only Minot and two more of the 13 grantees are likely to meet the deadline, Zakian said.
“I think in 2022, there will be a lot of ribbon-cuttings and celebrations,” he said. “The family homeless shelter, affordable housing projects, and maybe the Center for Technical Education, too. There will be clear measurables and successes coming from NDR.”
“In 2023, if everything stays on track, there will be a steady progression of closing out all the different grants,” Zakian added. “Minot will be one of the ones to utilize all of the funding so there will be nothing to return to HUD.”
In addition to the housing projects, Zakian listed the Center for Technical Education and flood mitigation efforts as projects that he’s most proud of in his time in Minot.
“The CTE moving forward will be a major benefit to the Minot because it involves so many other community partners,” he said. “I also think we’ve done a good job of utilizing the funds we had available for property acquisitions to help the flood project move forward.”
Minot’s successful implementation of the federal funds isn’t surprising to Zakian.
“There’s strong sense of community here. In a positive way, this is a very gritty city,” he said. “Those are invaluable strengths for any city to have a sustainable recovery and growth after a disaster. I felt that coming in, and my time here has only reinforced that feeling.”