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Council OKs revamp of biz grant program

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Monday, July 17, 2017

City Council has approved revamping the city’s Downtown Improvement Grant program, a move that allows businesses outside the downtown to seek grants for building fixes that will create jobs.

The first deadline to apply for funding under the newly renamed Business Improvement Grant Program is Sept. 1. Businesses can win grants of up to $20,000.

The grants have a dollar-for-dollar match, meaning the city will cover half of a project’s cost, up to $40,000. Sixty-thousand dollars in total funding is available for downtown businesses, while $20,000 is available for the city’s non-downtown businesses. That reflects councilors’ decision last month to ensure more grant money is available for businesses citywide. Previously the program only allowed non-downtown businesses to apply for leftover funding late in the city’s budget year.

Businesses eligible for the grants will be scored on a rubric that awards points based on job creation, correction of safety issues and work that will make lasting improvements to buildings’ aesthetics. Businesses must score at least 40 out of 100 points to be considered for funding.

Businesses that don’t apply by Sept. 1 may apply by Dec. 31 for a chance at any remaining funding. If there’s still funding left after that round, the city will combine the downtown and non-downtown funds into one pot for businesses to apply for regardless of location in the city.

It is also council’s intention not to fund “big box stores,” though that restriction wasn’t totally defined Monday. Councilors Tony Stimatz and Michael Brooks both expressed concerns about big businesses using up public funds that should be set aside for small, local entrepreneurs, but City Manager Rich Olson said it’s hard to define what’s a big business.

Stimatz suggested ruling out applications from businesses with high annual sales, while Mayor Joe Peel suggested emphasizing funding would be for “local” entrepreneurs.

Olson said city staff would try to define that restriction through language in grant applications.

On Friday, Olson said the city would define small businesses by relying on the federal Small Business Administration’s definition of a small business. According to that criteria, a small business is one that is independently owned and operated, expects to have annual receipts of less than $750,000, and expects to employ 25 or fewer employees.

Councilor Johnnie Walton also expressed concerns that a single person could receive all $20,000 available to a non-downtown business, meaning the city might only help one non-downtown business a year. Councilors didn’t resolve that concern Monday.

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