MERIDEN — Officials on Thursday night refined a proposal to increase funding for the city’s MeridenBIG commercial space program.
The program, whose name stands for “Meriden Business Investment and Growth,” was established in 2022, with the City Council approving the use of $5 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money to fund it. The program as currently structured targets the reuse of vacant commercial spaces by businesses not presently located in Meriden by providing grants with a required match to allow applicants to upgrade spaces for code compliance and other improvements in those spaces.
The proposed $1.5 million increase in funding targets businesses already in Meriden, through the potential offering of additional grant opportunities.
Questions and concerns raised by City Councilors during Thursday night’s meeting of the Economic Development Housing and Zoning Committee centered largely on the Meriden Economic Development Corporation,the agency overseeing the program, to ensure transparency, as well as its application process and criteria used to determine which businesses would be eligible if the expansion is ultimately approved.
After two hours of discussion, the committee appeared to reach a consensus on how that program expansion would be structured: in tiers, supporting businesses with so-called storefronts, meaning eligible businesses would not be based out of proprietors’ homes.
The proposal carves out $150,000 to provide $15,000 grants to businesses with two to four employees with no required match. The next tier, $350,000, would provide $25,000 grants to businesses with five to nine employees, also without a required match. Businesses for both of those programs would need to have been in existence for at least two or more years.
The remainder of proposed program funds, $1 million, would fund grants of up to $100,000, with businesses that employ a minimum of 10 people required to match those funds. The matches as proposed would be 25% for the inner district and 50% for the city’s outer district.
Near the outset of discussions, Councilor Bruce A. Fontanella took umbrage with the program being administered entirely by MEDCO and the city’s Department of Economic and Community Development. He noted that the current process for determining ARPA funding distribution to non-profits, businesses and city departments has been public, in that they’ve been conducted through the city’s ARPA Steering Committee and later the City Council.
Fontanella noted a MEDCO-overseen process would be “done without public input.” He described the potential shift in funding applications from local businesses as “an affront” to candidates who’ve already applied, through the different review process. Fontanella balked at allowing a private agency to determine how public money will be distributed.
Those who supported MEDCO’s oversight of the program had a different view, noting the proposed program would allow economic development officials, with the assistance of a concierge, to guide applicants through the program. That guidance would include ensuring applicants provide documentation showing they are eligible for funding under federal guidelines.
Council Majority Leader Sonya Jelks’ concerns centered on the program’s requirements for matching funds and the criteria around the minimum number of employees a business must have to be eligible.
“While we do want this to benefit businesses in Meriden, it should not be at the cost of small businesses that truly did suffer, which are still staying here, providing the services,” Jelks said. “… I think the true intention of the ARPA money was to help with harm. It was not to boon municipalities for a wishlist of things we wanted to do.”
Joseph Feest, the city’s director of economic development, responding to concerns raised about the application process for the existing program and the potentially expanded one, explained it had been vetted through the same ARPA consultant that the city uses for all of its applications.
Feest explained the program as designed is intended to help smaller mom and pop businesses, which he noted may not have the same time or access to resources that a larger business might have. So the proposed application process allows 60 to 90 days and has a service “built in with this program to help small businesses fill out everything they need to and walk them through the process.”
Mayor Kevin Scarpati was in favor of the proposal and spoke in support of the funding match requirements as well as the criteria around the length of time a business has operated in the city. Scarpati said he wants to see increased employment, including the increased employment of skilled workers.
Scarpati said in his mind the program was not just about retaining businesses in Meriden, but affording them the opportunity to grow — “giving them the ability, a hand up to grow in Meriden.”
Councilor Michael Carabetta spoke supportively of the program’s administration through MEDCO and the Office of Economic and Community Development.
“They offer more assistance to the local businesses,” Carabetta said.