Economic incentives are most often discussed when states or cities are trying to lure big businesses. While the impact of bringing a Walmart Distribution Center or Kohl’s to the area is fairly obvious, it’s important that small businesses aren’t forgotten.
Facade grant programs are one of those incentives that send a positive message to the smaller entrepreneurs that make up a large percentage of a region’s economic base.
Sterling’s facade program, administered by the city’s Main Street organization, was started in 2009. The program has grown, and while many small towns’ awards max out at $5,000 or $10,000, Sterling reimburses business owners up to $40,000.
Since its inception, Sterling has given small business owners nearly $400,000 to help update the exteriors of their buildings. Several storefronts, including Smoked on 3rd, Mead’s Bike Shop, UOI Boutique, Merle Norman and Mattox Insurance Agency have been improved with the help of city facade grants.
Small businesses in the Whiteside County Enterprise Zone can also receive a sales tax abatement on materials used for the renovations that are done.
In Rock Falls, circumstances have made it more difficult to establish a facade program and keep it running. Main Streets usually run the programs, but the organization doesn’t exist in that city. The Rock Falls Community Development Corp. launched the facade program in 2014, and served as its administrator.
When the RFCDC disbanded, the program’s future was in jeopardy. Rock Falls Tourism took charge and the city contributed $20,000 to get things up and running again. Several downtown storefronts, including Selmi’s Bridal, Country Financial, Bartini’s and Treasure Chest, were renovated with the help of facade grant reimbursements. The cap on the Rock Falls program is at $5,000.
By 2017, however, interested had waned in the Rock Falls grant program. The annual $20,000 appropriation was reduced to $15,000, and the city’s tourism committee put it under a microscope. To that panel’s credit, its members understood the importance of improving the look of West Second Street, and they realized how difficult it might be to mothball the program and try to bring it back later.
The city decided to tweak the guidelines and the program was again resuscitated. Earlier this month, the city approved a facade grant application from local developer Pete Harkness. He will receive $5,000 to help pay for work at 100 W. First St., the former site of a CGH Medical Center Clinic.
Harkness is working on a much bigger development at the RB&W site, for which he has an opportunity to collect other incentives through the city’s riverfront tax increment financing district, the enterprise zone, and the property’s location within a federal Opportunity Zone.
Chasing new industrial ventures should always be a high economic development priority, but states, cities and counties must also remember to take care of what they already have.