MERIDEN — City councilors will deliberate this week on a request from economic development officials to bolster the city’s MeridenBIG commercial space upgrade program with an additional $1.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds.
Joseph Feest, the city’s director of Economic and Community Development, discussed the proposal during the American Rescue Plan Act Steering Committee meeting on Jan. 30. The committee voted to back the proposal, which will be taken up by the Economic Development, Housing and Zoning Committee of the City Council on Thursday.
The influx of funds, if the program is approved by the council after EDHZ referral, would expand the types of businesses eligible for funding under the recently created Meriden Business Investment and Growth program, which officials have dubbed “MeridenBIG.”
The council in 2022 voted to allocate $5 million of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds toward that program. MeridenBIG was inspired in large part by a similar program in Hartford. It provides grants targeted at spurring the reuse of vacant commercial buildings in the city — particularly in the downtown Transit Oriented District, or TOD. The program targets new businesses as a means to revitalize those vacant spaces.
That program’s funds, which would be used for vanilla box improvements to ensure the spaces are compliant with current building codes, require a 25% match from applicants seeking to utilize a commercial space in the TOD or 50% for a space outside the district. The maximum amount the city would provide for each grant is $300,000.
City economic development officials are managing the program with the Meriden Economic Development Corporation, with assistance from the MidState Chamber of Commerce. The city has so far received around 30 applications seeking program funds, but is still in the process of determining which proposals are eligible, and has not yet awarded grants toward any projects.
The proposed program, if expanded, would enable existing businesses to receive a grant of up to $100,000, with a 50% match, regardless of where the business is located in the city. Officials say the amount of the required match and whether to offer a different match for businesses in the TOD are at the council’s discretion.
Feest, in presenting the proposal to the ARPA Committee, told members that the proposal seeks to assist businesses in their infrastructure needs — for example, toward the construction of outdoor dining areas for existing restaurants, or other renovations.
Feest said the main keys for businesses to be eligible for the proposed program are project readiness, economic impact and business viability. So business owners, in their applications, would need to provide profit and loss statements and other documentation to be eligible for funding.
Mayor Kevin Scarpati, reached on Monday, said he believes the expanded program is overdue. “We probably should have, when we first launched the MeridenBIG, had a separate pot of money, knowing or anticipating there would be an influx of requests. I’m a supporter of it.”
Scarpati said the city needs to move forward with supporting its existing businesses. That focus should center on businesses’ expansion and new job creation.
“I think it’s a good idea to have a match. It shows the business is invested and committed,” Scarpati said.
MEDCO President Thomas Welsh said the program, if approved, would be an add-on to an existing program. MEDCO has reviewed around 20 of the applications so far received, and some of them already were determined to be illegible, Welsh said.
The city has recently selected a concierge consultant who will assist the applicants on their proposals, Welsh explained.
During last month’s discussions ARPA Committee members and Feest discussed some of the proposal’s potential stipulations. One of them: the number of years a business has been located in Meriden.
Scarpati, during those discussions, said he doesn’t think one year, for example, is enough time for a business to have operated in the city to be considered eligible for the program.
Feest, in response to Scarpati’s statement, said he believes three to five years is a “good span for existing business” to be eligible for the proposal.
Scarpati said he believes employment and opportunity for growth should be factors in the proposal.
“I firmly believe that jobs should be tied to this program,” the mayor said, suggesting that a small business run out of that business owner’s home should not be eligible. But if a business has 90 employees, is looking to add square footage, and contribute to both the city’s tax base and job growth, that should be considered.
“I would like to see jobs be a component of this,” Scarpati said.