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$280 million: Toward fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel (D. Ross Cameron/Staff)

Call it fire money. In Oakland, $50,000 is going to a nonprofit best known for its fiery performance art.

Call it wine money. In Napa County, $54 million is going to protect the tracks on which a train hauls tourists through vineyards as they sip chardonnay.

Call it Indian money. In Sonoma County, $272,578 is going to provide housing assistance to two tribes that reap millions a year from lucrative gambling casinos, including one in Contra Costa County.

Call it nightclub money. In Berkeley, $499,384 is going for field studies of what kind of booze young people pound down in bars and other hot spots.

By any other name, stimulus money is what it is: an infusion of government cash by either grant, low interest loan or contracted service.

More than $1 billion from the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is flowing freely into the Bay Area, flooding university research coffers and boosting transportation projects such as the long-awaited Caldecott Tunnel expansion and the BART-Oakland Airport people mover, funding high-tech baggage screening equipment at San Francisco International Airport and improvements to Caltrain in San Mateo County.

Money also is going to nearly every city in the region to help fund police services, boost Section 8 housing and upgrade infrastructure. Hundreds of arts groups, social researchers and private businesses are also receiving grants and low-interest loans.

The region is also receiving one of the largest individual awards in the country for green energy: a $535 million loan to Solyndra Inc. for the construction of a factory in Fremont where it will produce rooftop solar panels for commercial buildings.

Company officials announced in late December they intend to take the company public to raise more capital to leverage against the loan, which the Department of Energy administers.

Congress passed the stimulus bill in February, hoping for a massive jump start to the crippled economy. California's share topped $30 billion. Applicants from theater companies to stem-cell researchers scurried to submit grant applications alongside scores of government agencies.

In the Bay Area, Stanford University received more than $83 million in research grants and a $90 million government contract to study ultrafast scientific instruments, according to government data. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre got $50,000 to preserve jobs.

Tricky numbers

How individual awards are spent can be tricky to follow. For example, the government lists $1.6 billion as being delivered to Alameda County, but the number is deceptive.

Because Oakland is home to the University of California headquarters and a regional Caltrans district, hundreds of millions of dollars in grants, loans and contracts are identified as flowing to the county but are really marked for projects across the region and state.

That also means the amount of money identified as awarded in each county is skewed. For example, Caltrans work in Marin, Santa Clara and other Bay Area counties — totaling hundreds of millions — is listed as Alameda County money because of the location of the headquarters.

But wherever the money ends up, some of the dole-outs are bound to raise questions from critics of government spending.

"It is almost inevitable that in a mass government spending, no matter what they say, that questionable kinds of things get through," said Sean Randolph, an economist with the Bay Area Council, a pro-business organization of major regional employers.

"Some of this is taking a lot of money and throwing at the wall and seeing what sticks," added Randolph, who has studied stimulus funding and made recommendations on projects.

Two Republican U.S. senators, John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, recently identified four Bay Area projects as among 100 nationally they called a questionable use of public money. Those four include the building of irrigation systems to use reclaimed water for golf courses in Antioch and Pacifica, elevating a bridge to protect the Napa Wine Train from flooding, and enhancing security for a ferry company that no longer has federal contracts, according to the report.

A Contra Costa County official strongly disputed that the federal money aiding a project to pump recycled water to the Lone Tree Golf Course is a waste of money as the McCain-Coburn report asserted.

"Every drop of water we use is a drop of water that doesn't come out of the Delta," said Gary Darling, general manager of the Delta-Diablo Sanitary District. The $10 million project also will supply recycled water to four parks for irrigation and was under way well before it received $831,700 in stimulus funds, he said.

"The stimulus money helped us move right into construction," Darling said.

Stimulus money is also funding a major Army Corps of Engineers project in Napa County to elevate a railroad bridge used by the Napa Wine Train, a tourist attraction, at a cost of $54 million. The McCain-Coburn report listed it as the 11th most "silly and shortsighted" project in the country.

The moving of the wine train's bridge is part of a much larger flood protection project, the train's marketing director wrote in an open letter to McCain, refuting that the project wastes money.

"The goal of this project is to protect the city of Napa from continued flooding, period, not enhance specific companies," Melodie Hilton wrote.

'Close to the edge'

The Crucible, an Oakland nonprofit foundry that hosts an annual fire arts festival each July, received a $50,000 grant "to support the preservation of jobs that are threatened by declines in philanthropic and other support during the current economic downturn," the grant award states

"Being a nonprofit that runs pretty close to the edge, it's definitely helpful to us," said the Crucible's marketing director, Jan Schelesinger. The money will let the organization retain an event coordinator and a production assistant that might have been otherwise lost, she said.

Discounts to Crucible classes are being offered to boost enrollment while other costs are being cut, Schelesinger said.

In Berkeley, the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation received a $499,384 grant from the National Institutes of Health for a study of risky drinking patterns and decision-making in nightclubs.

Brenda Miller of the institute Prevention Research Center said the project went through a scientific review process before receiving funding in late September.

She said she hired two part-timers immediately, and just recently hired a full-time project manager. In February, she expects to hire 12 to 20 part-timers who'll do the fieldwork in Bay Area night spots.

"Most of the money for this grant is set aside for data collection, getting data collected out in the field "... and we really need a fairly large staff to do that," Miller said.

"Young adults who are in the 21-to-30 age range are the most likely to apply for these jobs because it involves being up late at night "... and they will have the easiest rapport with people who are going to the clubs."

The research will analyze drinking patterns of young adults to study how group interactions influence, when, why and how much people drink, she said. Nightclub-goers might be offered a small fee to participate.

The aim is to develop strategies that will "result in safer practices among young adults when they go out for an evening," Miller said, by reducing excessive drinking, drug use or risky sexual behavior.

Tribes benefit

Two Indian tribes in Sonoma County received housing grants from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Those tribes, The Lytton Band of Pomo Indians and the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians — own Bay Area casinos.

The Dry Creek band received a grant of $203,845 for housing, according to stimulus data. The tribe, with less than 1,000 members, owns the Dry Creek casino in Sonoma County.

According to records on file with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the tribe's casino company, River Rock Entertainment, listed total assets of $207.5 million for the reporting period that closed Sept. 30. Tribal Chairman Harvey G. Hopkins could not be reached for comment.

The Lytton Band, which is also based in Sonoma County but operates the Lytton San Pablo Casino in western Contra Costa, received a housing grant of $68,773. Based on its annual payments of to the City of San Pablo based on gross income, the Lytton's casino takes in between $130 million and $150 million a year. A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs didn't return several messages. Neither did the Lytton's spokesman, Doug Elmets.

One Bay Area business owner said he didn't know that Small Business Administration loan he received came from stimulus funding, which included increased SBA funding.

Oakland's Piedmont Piano Co. took the $1.4 million loan in May, company President Jim Callahan Jr. said.

"We bought a new building which we're moving to. We've never owned a building before, and we've been here in Oakland 31 years," he said. "There's no possible way it could've happened without the SBA loan."

The new building now under renovation on San Pablo Avenue at 18th Street in Oakland's Uptown district not only will house Piedmont Piano's retail store with five employees, but also additional classroom space — the business has about 30 music teachers working as independent contractors — as well as a public performance area.

Callahan said he hopes to be fully moved in by year's end.

Top awards in each county

Alameda: $535 million loan from the Department of Energy to Solyndra of Fremont to develop more efficient solar panels for businesses.

Contra Costa: $615,236 Army Corps of Engineers contract to Abide International Inc. to make repairs to piers along the county waterfront.

Marin: $6.3 million Army Corps of Engineers contract to the Dutra Dredging Co. for maintenance dredging of several shipping channels.

Napa: $54 million Army Corps of Engineers contract to Suulutaasq Inc. to relocate tracks and a bridge used by the NapaWine Train as part of a flood control project.

San Francisco: $67 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration to the city for preventative maintenance and improvements to light-rail cars and other transit improvements.

San Joaquin: $41 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration to Caltrans for road improvements in Stockton.

San Mateo: $90 million Office of Science contract with Stanford to develop ultrafast scientific instruments.

Santa Clara: $47.5 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration to the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority for operation and capital improvements.

Solano: $7.6 million grant to the city of Vallejo from the Federal Transit Administration for restoration of the city ferry terminal.

Sonoma: $4.2 million grant to the city of Santa Rosa from the Federal Transit Administration for preventative maintenance on buses and improvements to bus shelters.

* Total includes money to the University of California, headquartered in Oakland, and a Caltrans district office that will be used for regional projects.

Sources: Recovery.org; Pro Publica STAFF