The city is tweaking the timing and marketing of a new grant program for smaller businesses after interest fell flat this year.

The centerpiece of his state of the city speech last year, Mayor Dan Horrigan unveiled the Great Streets Akron initiative to counter decades of disinvestment, population decline and public resources that seemed to flow downtown, away from neighborhood businesses left to fend for themselves. The program prioritizes small business loans for 10 historic neighborhood business districts.

But there would be a chance, too, for grants of up to $30,000 per building to match dollar for dollar exterior renovations that make the local business strips more attractive and viable. Eight of the business hubs — Aster Avenue in Firestone Park, East Copley and Maple Valley in West Akron, a block east of Reservoir Park in Goodyear Heights, Kenmore Boulevard, the Arlington/Market/Exchange intersection of Middlebury, Temple Square in North Hill and West Market Street through West Hill — would be eligible for these facade grants, which are federally funded and must go to more impoverished areas based on local household incomes.

Interest exceeded expectations when 52 applications were received in 2018 for the inaugural round of façade grants. In all, the city supported 35 property owners with $651,000 in grants, busting its $600,000 budget.

Another $600,000 was set aside for 2019 when the application window would close in early June. The projects, which included new siding, windows and roofs, had to be approved before a contractor could start the work. That timetable pushed the outdoor work into winter or 2020. Some property owners, unaware that 2020 projects could get 2019 grant awards, decided not to apply, which further depressed interest.

Ultimately, businesses filed only 24 applications this year, less than half the 2018 total. And most of the 2019 grants will go to the Merriman Valley, which wasn't even eligible last year. Local community and business advocates pushed to add the scenic neighborhood to the list of eligible business districts for 2019.

Merriman Valley businesses will get $205,721 for projects this year, including $150,000 to replace the roof and parking lot at Liberty Commons — a complex of bars, shops and eateries in five interlocking commercial buildings around a courtyard.

The other eight eligible business districts will share $181,375, a 73 percent decline in grant funding from the $651,000 they collectively won last year.

There was an “exceptionally high number of applicants” in 2018, said Mark Greer, who administers the Great Streets program at City Hall. “What happened is that it left us with a smaller pool of applicants on this current round,” he said, adding that he believes that explains this year's depressed interest, which he thinks will rebound in 2020.

Greer, who joined the program this year, said applications for the third annual facade grant awards could open in the next few weeks, giving businesses until the end of 2019 to plan and apply for projects that would be more suitably scheduled when the weather breaks in the spring.

Greer said he’s considering proposals to expand the boundaries of eligibility for some of the business districts, and possibly add another. And he's ramping up outreach in places like North Hill's Temple Square, the only eligible area with no facade grant winner after two years.

“I’ve already been talking to a lot of business owners in these districts to get them to start getting their bids lined up,” Greer said, hoping to uncork or jump-start business revitalization in Akron’s underserved communities.

Communities driven by vocal and local advocates have done well to get grants. Kenmore, Maple Valley and the Merriman Valley have secured funding for 17, 12 and nine projects, respectively, in the past two years. The communities include active neighborhood development organizations, from the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance to the Progressive Alliance in West Akron and the Merriman Valley Neighborhood Association championed locally by Karen Zampelli and supported by Ward 8 Councilwoman Marilyn Keith.

Neighborhoods with little success in getting grants, so far, are Goodyear Heights and East Copley with one grant award each, followed by West Hill with three grants. Middlebury and Firestone Park have had four projects each.

To view boundary maps for eligible business districts or learn more about the matching façade grant program, visit www.greatstreetsakron.com or call Greer at 330-375-2355, ext. 4998.

 

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.