MERIDEN — The American Rescue Plan Act Committee voted 6-1 Monday to recommend expanding the Commercial Space Upgrade Program by $1.5 million to fund existing businesses.
The action follows an earlier ARPA Committee resolution to set aside $5 million in federal funding to assist entrepreneurs and landlords who wish to spruce up their properties. The goal is to eliminate vacancies primarily in the city’s downtown.
The $5 million Commercial Space Upgrade program is expected to go live at the end of this month or early next month, said city Economic Development Director Joseph Feest. Applications are currently being finalized and will be posted on websites hosted by the Meriden Economic Development Corp., the City of Meriden and the Midstate Chamber of Commerce.
In September, the City Council authorized the use of federal COVID-19 relief money to establish a program as an incentive to reuse vacant commercial buildings. The $5 million Commercial Space Upgrade Program would enable the owners of vacant commercial space and business tenants to bring the buildings up to code or to make other so-called "vanilla box" improvements.
But the program did not include provisions for existing businesses in need of assistance, City Manager Timothy Coon told the ARPA Committee. Two businesses, the Downtown Coffee Shop and a barbershop have submitted requests for assistance that were tabled Monday.
“After some discussions, we seek … additional funding to deal with existing businesses only,” Coon said. “We looked at simplifying it even further. Existing businesses would be identified by the type of businesses we want and limited to infrastructure and put a cap of $100,000.”
The $1.5 million would come from left over economic development funds, Coon said.
“I understand the demand,” said Mayor Kevin Scarpati. “I support the overall (premise). But I’m not in support of cannibalizing the existing program.”
Scarpati pointed to Hartford, where the city embarked on a similar commercial space upgrade program run by its chamber of commerce, but soon realized there was a void for existing businesses.
Scarpati agreed there is a value to separating the two programs but acknowledged questions remained about what the process would look like and how many applications it will handle. He motioned support of the $1.5 million expansion, with Coon making a friendly amendment to cap requests at $100,000.
The committee agreed other qualifying parameters would be discussed and defined at the next committee meeting Dec. 12, Feest said. The City Council has final approval on the program expansion.
Both programs will be administered by the Meriden Economic Development Corp. and the city’s Economic Development Department. The Commercial Space Upgrade Program would require a funding match from applicants. For spaces located in the downtown inner city district, the match would be 25%.
Feest said he supports a small match for the expanded program but wants to hear from other members. The applications will be reviewed by the ARPA consultant and referred to MEDCO and the city for final approval. He expects the rollout, allocation and approvals will take at least a year.
“This is our first chance at getting this right,” Feest said. “We’re going to be as careful and cautious as possible.”