Another incentive program meant to bring business — and possibly residences — to downtown Clinton received the City Council’s approval during a recent budget workshop. The program, which would reimburse tenants for their first year’s utility costs, is believed to be a groundbreaking one among the N.C. Main Street communities.
Clinton-Sampson Planning director and Main Street director Mary Rose proposed the Utility Incentive Program to Council members, who responded with their unanimous approval to move forward with implementation.
Rose explained that the program that would reimburse a new or relocated business to the downtown for all water and sewer expenses for their first year of operation. The stipulation for receiving the money back would be that the owner or tenant would have to provide city staff with a business plan and a lease that is at least one year in length.
“You would pay your water and sewer bill for the first year,” Rose pointed out, “and at the end of that year, if you’re still there and you have met all the requirements, we will grant you back your water and sewer bill for the year.”
The Economic Restructuring Committee will review all applicants and participants to ensure requirements are followed, Rose noted. The reimbursements would be granted for up to $200 a month throughout the year, meaning the grant could be as high as $2,400.
“We took two middle to large retailers downtown and we averaged their water bills over three months and multiplied it by 12,” said Rose. “For two of our retailers, it would have meant a grantback of $460 (over the three months) and another one it would have been $300. Then we took two restaurants, because they tend to be higher water users, and for one of the restaurants it would have been a $1,400 grantback, the other a $900 grantback.”
Those used for the example were existing businesses, where the incentive program would only apply to new and newly relocated downtown businesses.
The Utility Incentive Program would join others that are already available — one of which recently expanded — in attempting to attract business to Clinton’s focal point.
Financial incentives are offered through the Downtown Facade Improvement Grant for exterior improvements and the Downtown Special Tax District Incentive Program, which returns property taxes on the increase in property value to the property owner for five years after a renovation project.
The ultimate goal is to recruit and retain businesses. And it is working.
Rose said she gets a phone call concerning downtown projects, events, programs or properties on a weekly basis. It did not used to be that way.
“It used to be yearly, then it went to monthly,” Rose said of calls about the downtown. “Now, weekly we are working on things downtown. It is just amazing.”
The Facade Improvement Grant Program, created in December 2011 in order to encourage aesthetic improvements to downtown buildings, received nearly a dozen participants through February of this year with qualifying projects eligible for a grant of up to $1,000 per facade on a 50/50 matching, reimbursement basis. A total private investment of $28,500 was made as part of the program, matched by a public investment of $9,000 in grant funding.
In March, that program was expanded and an additional $10,000 in city funds dedicated to the effort by Council.
The expansion meant that facade projects totaling up to $10,000 are now eligible for a grant of up to the lesser of $2,500 or half the total cost, while projects exceeding $10,000 are eligible for a grant of up to 25 percent of the total cost not to exceed $5,000.
Rose said the response has been positive.
“We have had one person take advantage of it,” she said. “Another is in the middle of a project, and we have three more applications out right now. I think it has been tremendously helpful. I think you’re going to see more people continue to use that expanded option because it is more money. Just in the short time it has been expanded, we’re seeing a lot of interest.”
City officials hoped for similar success with the utility incentives.
“This is another incentive program for downtown,” said City manager Shawn Purvis. “We feel it will help the commercial side and it may be one of those that we can tie to the residential (side) eventually as well.”
“I think it could easily transition to residential,” said Rose.
Public Works and Utilities director Jeff Vreugdenhil said the reimbursements, to be made out of the Water and Sewer Fund, would be manageable. Purvis said those grantbacks would be nominal and could help a potential downtown business stay downtown, contributing to the tax base and future utilities.
“It’s not large amounts,” the city manager attested, “but it’s an extra little bit to help those businesses coming in.”
Not just a recruiting tool, the utility incentive along with others may be the deciding factor in whether that business is retained or not.
“It could mean make or break for a starting business,” Mayor Lew Starling asserted.
Rose said a short list of guidelines and eligibility requirements had already been developed, including requiring a business plan and a one-year stay.
“We do think that by requiring a business plan it ensures that people have taken time to think about it. And we require them to be there for a year. If you’re there for six months, I’m sorry,” said Rose, who said she believed Clinton would be the lone Main Street community of the more than 60 across the state to have such an incentive program.
“We’ve done some research,” she continued. “We might be the only Main Street community in the state that would be doing this right now, so we think we would be at the forefront of something exciting.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.