Posted on

Charles City Council ponders tweaks to downtown facade grant program

By Bob Steenson,

What’s a project? How many projects is too many projects? And how much should a project be worth?

The Charles City Council spent a good part of its workshop meeting Monday night debating potential new rules for the city’s Facade Improvement Program, which helps pay to preserve and restore existing businesses in the Riverside TIF District  – the downtown urban renewal area.

Currently the program allows property owners to apply for a grant for half the cost of a project, up to a total grant of $10,000. Typical uses are for new signage; new doors and windows; exterior painting, cleaning or repointing; upper story interior rehabilitation; and emergency roof repairs.

The grants are given in the form of a forgivable loan, which doesn’t have to be repaid unless the property is sold or closed within two years.

The suggestion for a rules change came up a while ago because of concern that businesses might be splitting up work to take advantage of the program, for example refurbishing one wall as one project, then coming back and seeking another grant for another wall, another grant for another wall, etc.

The program is administered through Main Street Charles City. The Charles City Council appropriates $35,000 annually for the facade program, and another $25,000 for Cultural & Entertainment District Grants, which is a similar program.

The Main Street Charles City Design Committee receives facade grant applications and makes recommendations to the City Council, which has final say if an application is approved and if there are any stipulations or project requirements.

In fiscal year 2020-21 the program funded five grants for a total city contribution of $34,752, said Mark Wicks, Charles City development director.

Wicks and council member DeLaine Freeseman had worked on potential changes in the program’s guidelines based on previous council concerns, Monday night suggesting that a property owner be limited to applying for two improvement project grants in a single year.

The maximum grant would remain at $10,000, but the total of the two grants possible for the same business in a year would be $15,000, the proposal said. Once they reach that $15,000 total they would not be eligible to apply for more Facade Improvement Program grants for three years.

Council member Phoebe Pittman asked, “Have we had many businesses apply for multiple grants over the years?”

“A couple,” Wicks answered, saying the program typically funds five to six projects a year.

Pittman said maybe the answer was some sort of language calling for unique or separate projects.

Council member Phillip Knighten said he would like the program to have guidelines, so it’s easier to decide if a project qualifies and to prevent people from trying to cheat the system, and Councillor Patrick Lumley said he could see making the language a little tougher.

But Mayor Dean Andrews wondered why changes were necessary.

“We want people to use this,” he said. “We’ve never run out of money. I’d have more interest if we had more projects than we had money.”

Freeseman said applications are increasing as people learn about the program and understand it better.

Wicks said the reality of building rehabilitation is that a lot of people can’t afford to do a big project at once, and so they break it up into parts, so maybe the $15,000 grant total was more important than the number of projects for a single business.

“The fund was designed to be an incentive for improvements on the downtown district,” Wicks said.

“We don’t necessarily have anyone who is, you don’t want to say playing the system, on a regular basis. They’re doing what the program criteria allows them to do. We can go back to tightening it up if you don’t want it to do certain things, but everybody that has applied to date has applied based on what the program criteria allows them to apply for,” Wicks said.

Andrews asked Wicks to take the comments and suggestions made at the meeting and bring back a revised proposal at the next council workshop meeting.

Also at Monday’s workshop meeting, the council:

  • Approved a facade grant application from Snap Fitness, to help fund a signage change. The application was for a grant of $5,483.95, to fund 50% of the $10,967.90 project.
  • Decided to have all workshop meetings on the Wednesday before a regular meeting. Regular meetings are held on the first and third Mondays of the month.

Previously the first workshop meeting of the month had been on the Wednesday before the regular meeting, but the second workshop had been on Monday, a week before the regular meeting.

Making all regular meetings on Monday and all workshops on Wednesday would make it easier for people to know when meetings are being held, and easier for planning, said City Administrator Steve Diers.

“That’s just so much fun to say, and it rolls right off the tongue,” he said. “Meeting Mondays, workshop Wednesdays.”

Social Share