MERIDEN — The City Council on Monday night voted unanimously to authorize the use of federal COVID-19 relief money to establish a program to incentivize the reuse of vacant commercial buildings.
The $5 million Commercial Space Upgrade Program seeks to create a fund, using a portion of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act money, that would enable the owners of vacant commercial spaces and business tenants to bring those buildings up to code or to make other so-called “vanilla box” improvements. The program, which will be administered by the Meriden Economic Development Corp., would require a funding match from applicants. For spaces located in the downtown inner city district, that match would be 25%. Applicants looking to improve vacant spaces outside of that district would be required to provide a 50% match.
The program is modeled in large part after the Hart Lift program in Hartford. Under that program, the Hartford Chamber of Commerce is directing $6 million in ARPA funds to incentivize the reuse of vacant spaces in that city’s downtown and neighboring commercial districts, according to the Hartford Chamber.
Meriden and Hartford are not the only Connecticut cities to dedicate public money to commercial space reuse. A similar initiative is underway in Waterbury, where city aldermen in July approved $1.5 million to revitalize vacant storefronts in the city’s downtown, according to the Greater Waterbury Chamber of Commerce.
Questions and concerns raised by councilors and members of the public related to Meriden’s Commercial Space Upgrade Program largely centered on the fact it will be administered by MEDCO, a nonprofit corporation helmed by business leaders and city officials. MEDCO’s primary task is to spur economic development in Meriden’s downtown transit-oriented district.
Prior to the deliberations around the proposal, City Manager Timothy Coon made his own public statement regarding what he called “some misinformation concerning this program.” That misinformation related to MEDCO’s role in overseeing the program, the city manager explained.
“MEDCO is not receiving any funds from this $5 million program and neither is any MEDCO board member personally,” Coon said. “These funds will be placed in a city of Meriden account and not any accounts associated with MEDCO.”
He said further that all funding will be distributed to the business entities applying for the program, and that MEDCO, along with the city’s ARPA consultant, UHY Advisors, would be “utilized as an application review organization.”
The city, Coon said, would be responsible for the program’s financial administration.
During the council’s discussion of the proposal, councilor Michael Rohde, who chairs the Economic Development, Housing and Zoning Committee, said the program is geared toward improving economic conditions downtown. Rohde noted the buildings are aging, with many of them more than a century old.
“It’s important we stabilize them,” Rohde said, adding the program provides assistance to potential building owners to make those buildings “robust again.”
The program would also enable funding for larger projects outside the inner district to foster job creation, Rohde explained.
He noted that because the program requires a match, it is “not a flat out grant program.”
Fellow City Councilor Bruce A. Fontanella said he too was in favor of the program. But during his line of questions and comments in the council’s deliberations, Fontanella conveyed concerns about MEDCO’s executive committee being the program’s administrator.
Fontanella said his original objection to funding the program was the fact that it wouldn’t be overseen by Meriden city officials.
“It’s going to be run by a private non-profit corporation that doesn’t have to conform to the Freedom of Information Act and doesn’t have to report its internal actions…” Fontanella said. “... It’s not subject to the voters, or under the control of the voters of the city of Meriden. So it’s a nonprofit organization, distributing money to unknown people who have yet to be determined.”
Fontanella made a motion proposing that the program’s administration be overseen by MEDCO and also by Meriden’s own Office of Economic Development. Joseph Feest, the city’s economic development director, has a seat on the MEDCO executive committee because of his city position.
Fontanella said he would like to see someone more responsible to the city and its voters have a stronger say in decision-making related to public money.
Mayor Kevin Scarpati said he understood Fontanella’s point, noting he had met with Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin weeks ago, a meeting during which the two discussed the Hart Lift program’s administration at length.
Scarpati said he learned from Bronin that Hartford’s program had a few key components. One of them is having a third party administer it, in that case, the Hartford Chamber of Commerce. Another, is that Bronin, as Hartford’s mayor, has the ability to veto an application if he felt it was not in the interest of that city.
Ultimately, Fontanella’s motion, which would have given the economic development director Feest similar veto authority regarding applications, failed by a six to three vote.
During the discussion that directly preceded the vote, Deputy Mayor Michael Cardona asked Feest a line of questions related to the vetting of potential applications through the proposal.
Feest explained the applications would go through the city’s ARPA consultant, before going to the MEDCO executive committee for a decision.
When Cardona asked whether an application could be approved that the city doesn’t support, Feest explained there would be criteria set up to rank applications. For example, if there’s a proposal for a business in an already saturated market, such an application would be scored low, Feest explained.
Council Majority Leader Sonya Jelks noted the program’s application highlights that the city is looking to attract businesses with diverse ownership that are not already in abundance.
Jelks said one thing she did not want to do is create barriers for potential applicants — something she noted city leaders have been accused of in the past.
“I wouldn’t be in support of another layer,” Jelks said, while noting that diversity on the MEDCO board, including more women and people of color, is something that could improve.
Minority leader Dan Brunet said one thing he likes about the proposal as it was originally written is that it included monthly reports on applications and results that would be delivered to the EDHZ Committee.
The council unanimously approved three additional applications for ARPA funding Monday night.
Those applications included a $2 million request from the Boys & Girls Club of Meriden to fund a replacement of the roof and heating, ventilation and air conditioning system of its Lincoln Street building. The proposal also includes the renovation of a locker room that is no longer being utilized as such. Councilors Larue Graham and Krystle Blake, who serve as director and assistant director for the club, both abstained from discussing and voting on the item.
The council unanimously voted to authorize the Women & Families Center's $120,000 request to fund updating the heating and hot water systems in that agency’s Colony Street building. A fourth funding request of $75,000 for Miss Chantel’s Star Dance academy for scholarships and a partial renovation of the academy’s dance studio also received the council’s backing.
With the approvals of all four applications, roughly two-thirds of the city’s total $36.3 million pool of ARPA funds have now been committed.