MERIDEN — Speaking from behind a podium on the ground floor of 24 Colony St. Thursday morning, city leaders and economic development and business officials extolled the launch of a new program intended to revitalize vacant commercial spaces downtown and elsewhere throughout Meriden, while also providing assistance to business owners either seeking to establish new businesses or to relocate existing ones into the city.
The program, “MeridenBIG,” officially launched this week. The letters “BIG” in that name stands for Business Investment and Growth.
“We know how much opportunity there is here in Meriden, whether it’s downtown or anywhere throughout the city,” said Mayor Kevin Scarpati during Thursday’s announcement. “There’s lots of opportunities for growth, specifically around economic development and business growth. And so when the federal government allocated the American Rescue Plan funds to the city of Meriden, a priority was to focus on opportunities in and around the city center as well as throughout our community, to attract, retain and grow business.
“So we stand in this about 10,000 square foot space here in the heart of downtown, just to illustrate and show you what opportunities lie ahead,” Scarpati said.
Earlier this year, the Meriden City Council approved allocating $5 million from the city’s share of federal ARPA COVID-19 relief funds toward the initiative, as mentioned by the mayor. The initiative is largely modeled off similar programs, like Hartford’s “Hart Lift” initiative. The program in Hartford also targets vacant commercial properties and was launched using ARPA funds.
Meriden’s program consists of grants that would be used to bring vacant commercial spaces into compliance with current building codes and to provide what officials called “vanilla box” improvements, to enable businesses to move into those spaces. For spaces located in the downtown Transit Oriented District, or TOD, the required match from applicants is 25%. For spaces located outside the TOD, the required match is 50%. The maximum dollar amount the city would fund to each potential project for code compliance costs is $300,000 per project. Seizing opportunity
The city’s Department of Economic and Community Development is managing the program, in coordination with other city departments, and with assistance from the Meriden Economic Development Corporation, also known as MEDCO, as well as the Midstate Chamber of Commerce. MEDCO is a nonprofit agency whose leadership consists of local business and city leaders. The agency’s objective is to spur economic development downtown.
Joseph Feest, the city’s economic development director, described the investment of ARPA funds toward the MeridenBIG initiative as a “one-time opportunity.”
“It’s very rare to get some funding like this and we will work to use this as wisely as we can and make as much of an impact as we can. And that is the goal. We are downtown and as the mayor mentioned there are different matching proportions to this grant. We did do a lower number for downtown, our TOD, because we are looking to really expand out here,” Feest said, pointing out of the storefront of 24 Colony St. toward the buildings across the street, adding there are “many opportunities that are actually going on right now.”
That project includes plans to redevelop the first floors of those buildings with retail and commercial businesses, with apartments on the floors above. Upfront costs
Feest noted that the city and its partnering agencies have for years been trying to spur development downtown.
“But one of the things we learned was always an issue, like all other downtowns that have older buildings. And what is the problem with an older building? It’s code updates. And code updates are very expensive,” Feest said. That’s where the grants will step in, as the costs for code compliance, including updating their fire suppression systems and other items, can make the reuse of vacant commercial spaces unaffordable.
The cost of retrofitting a vacant space to make it ready for occupancy is another obstacle, Feest explained.
“So this is a way for us, again to help that business coming in, occupy an empty space and really rejuvenate our entire city,” Feest said.
MEDCO President Thomas J. Welsh said for years his agency and partnering groups had run a program called the Making Meriden Business Center. What leaders learned from that endeavor is that the high cost of improving downtown buildings to spur economic growth is a disincentive. Hence, development has tended to go elsewhere, in suburban communities where costs are considerably lower, for example.
“But maybe it makes a lot more sense to even up those disparities to provide businesses with a lack of that disincentive… to have a business that is consistent, that will be going into the future and that will rebuild our downtown, and our older urban cities in general, not just our downtowns,” Welsh said.
Midstate Chamber of Commerce President Rosanne Ford explained that the chamber is collaborating with other agencies to provide outreach and awareness to the program outside of Meriden’s zip codes. Those partnering agencies include the Black Business Alliance, the Community Economic Development Fund, the Spanish American Merchants Association, the Small Business Development Centers and Women Business Development Center.
Ford said bringing in those partners “broadens our reach and it’s so important, because we want everyone to know about this. We want it accessible to as many as possible.”‘This is a resource’
Black Business Alliance Executive Director Anne-Marie Knight said the alliance has been connecting with the Midstate Chamber for almost two years now.
Knight said she is happy to be able to bring the opportunity to historically underserved communities. The outreach effort consists of a mix of door-knocking, in-person and online interactions.
“Part of this is finding where the other opportunities are and connecting [aspiring business owners] to other resources,” Knight said. “This is a resource,” she said of the new program.”
The city of Meriden received a total of $36.3 million ARPA funding, not including education-specific funds allotted to the Board of Education.
Scarpati said it was a priority for the city to make sure it was not only working with existing businesses and nonprofits, but to find an answer for what he referred to as “that missing piece to the puzzle, which was what will it take to fill up storefronts, to fill up vacancies, to fill up buildings that we have throughout our city, and to really attract, grow and retain business.
“And that’s where this opportunity came in,” Scarpati said.
Scarpati said the required match on the part of business owners is to ensure that the program achieves sustainable growth.
“So we know the businesses we are partnering with are here for the long haul. Because that’s what we want. We want to see business come back to our city. We hear all too frequently about what downtown Meriden used to be, decades ago. Well here is an opportunity to not look in the rearview mirror, but to look forward. And that’s what MeridenBIG is providing to our businesses, both existing and new, with this opportunity,” Scarpati said. Prospective client
Yvonne Bailey, a real estate broker, was contacted by the Record-Journal hours after the press conference on Thursday. Bailey told the newspaper she had learned about the program this week. Her firm is looking to move its office downtown, to 61 Colony St. So she applied for a MeridenBIG grant.
Bailey said she found the application to be straightforward. She hasn’t yet received a notification of a grant award. “We do qualify,” Bailey said.
Echoing what city officials said about the challenges due to the cost of moving a business into a historic downtown building, Bailey said she kept an eye out for grants, like the one that launched this week.
“Once it hit, I was able to apply right away,” Bailey said.