MERIDEN — The City Council will be asked to consider allocating $5 million worth of federal COVID-19 monies to provide new incentives to revitalize vacant buildings throughout the city.
Members of the American Rescue Plan Act Steering Committee on Monday night voted to recommend funding an application dubbed the “Meriden Commercial Space Upgrade Program,” submitted by economic development officials.
Economic Development Director Joseph Feest appeared before the steering committee and described the proposal as “a very good shot in the arm for the city of Meriden.”
Feest said the city has “a lot” of commercial projects that could be helped by updates to existing buildings.
“The updating they need is code enforcement, which is very expensive,” Feest said.
He used the example of a former beauty salon being converted into a restaurant. It would need new fire protection and ventilation equipment.
Feest called the cost of the work “staggering.”
According to the program application, it aims to provide financial incentive to the owners of vacant and underutilized commercial spaces by providing funding to help owners meet building and zoning requirements and provide basic “vanilla-box” renovations.
“The goal of vanilla box upgrades is to reduce the risk to building owners and increase their likelihood of undertaking such upgrades. The overall goal of these financial incentives is to attract new business tenants to occupy vacant spaces in Meriden,” the application states.
Assisting property owners and businesses with the funding needed to ensure buildings are code compliant would increase their appeal to potential tenants.
The program would give a larger incentive for buildings located within the city’s Transit Oriented Development district. It would also provide grants to start-up businesses and to businesses that are either minority owned or owned by socially disadvantaged parties, according to the application.
The steering committee voted unanimously to recommend an amended version of the program. According to the amendment, applicants in the inner city district must provide a 25% match to any city funding. For new commercial projects elsewhere, the proposed match is 50%.
The city has $36.3 million in COVID-19 relief funds through the American Rescue Plan Act. The steering committee previously determined that 40% would be allocated toward infrastructure projects, while 25% would be allocated toward public health-related requests, 25% toward small businesses and nonprofit organizations and 10% for projects outside those categories.
As of Monday night, the city had more than $6.97 million remaining to allocate toward economic assistance.
If the City Council approves the commercial space program, around $1.97 million for that category would remain, the Record-Journal calculated based on figures shared during Monday night’s discussion.
During Monday night’s discussion, Mayor Kevin Scarpati, who sits on the steering committee, referenced a similar program in Hartford, called “Hartford Lift,” which he said, “has been working extremely well.”
“The purpose is to go after the vacancies — building after building, storefront after storefront,” Scarpati said, before asking Feest to explain how the proposed program would work and whether applicants must be property owners or tenants.
“It will be a little bit of both,” Feest said, explaining the grants would provide funds for landlords to complete the “white box” renovations of currently vacant buildings. If tenants apply, landlords will have to get involved.
If an applicant comes in with a business plan, they would need to provide a signature from a landlord to indicate they’ve approved proposed renovations. Officials would also be looking for a lease to show a multi-year commitment and that the “return of investment is going to be worth it,” Feest said.
During discussions, Scarpati and others noted the required match on the part of applicants appeared to be low, before ultimately agreeing on the 25% and 50% matches the committee is now recommending.
The increase, Scarpati stated, would “put a little more onus on the property owner that they have a stake in this.”
“We’re not throwing good money after bad when talking about this. We’re ensuring it’s a win-win,” Scarpati said.
During discussions, Feest referenced the Economic Development Department’s previous “Meriden Business Boost” application, which provided businesses with an advertising and promotion plan in partnership with the Record-Journal. The program was supported through a $300,000 ARPA application.
Feest said that the program had completely sold out.
“There was a lot of buzz about it. It’s doing very well,” Feest said.
City Councilor Michael Rohde is a member of the steering committee and also chair of the council’s Economic Development, Housing and Zoning Committee. During Monday night’s discussion, he described the proposal as an “opportunity to really do something special.”
On Tuesday, Meriden Economic Development Corporation President Thomas Welsh said the proposal addresses an issue — funding code compliance — that the corporation had long sought to address.
“It was the primary problem we ran into downtown,” Welsh said. “We were introducing potential landlords and tenants to our downtown and they were finding out that there was such a large amount of money needed in order to fill out old buildings. It was a real disincentive.”
Feest, the economic development director, joined Welsh in the call. He said if the program is adopted by the council as a whole it will have an open time frame for enrollment.
Feest hopes the program will attract a variety of applicants. A committee would review the applications.
“I want to spread the money out as much as possible,” he said.
Reporter Michael Gagne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.