Published 1:28 am Sunday, May 13, 2007

By Staff
Washington officials should put as much money as they can into the city’s facade-improvement program for the downtown area.
One look at downtown will provide the evidence needed to show the program is working. Buildings are looking better because of fresh paint, replaced windows and doors and new awnings.
Down on Main Street, Tassels and several other buildings housing retailers, real-estate agents and professionals have taken on new looks, which provide an overall new look to the city’s central business district. To be sure, there are some buildings that need fixing up. But that’s what the facade-improvement program is all about.
Last year, the city introduced a new facade-improvement program, providing the city with two such programs. Several downtown property owners received a combined $130,000 in grant money for storefront improvements and job creation.
The money was part of a $1 million Community Development Block Grant associated with the proposed The George — Little Inn at Washington project, which called for major renovation of the former Hotel Louise site. The project area included all buildings along both sides of West Main Street from Respess Street to North Market Street and the west side of South Market Street. Properties in that area were eligible to apply for grants under the newly created Urban Redevelopment Project Facade Improvement Program.
With The George — Little Inn at Washington project facing the possibility of falling through, the future of this facade-improvement program may be in doubt.
Even if the newest of the two programs may be in trouble, the older program remains. And it has been producing results for several years.
Last year, the city’s Downtown Facade Improvement Grant Program, which uses a different source of money to help pay for similar facade improvement projects, provided about $20,800 to property owners outside the West Main Street area but within the Business Historic District and involved in commercial activities.
The city uses the grant program to encourage businesses to improve their buildings’ appearances. The program, in place for about a dozen years, is responsible for many of the downtown facade improvements during that period, city officials said.
The city’s contribution to the program comes from an annual principal-and-interest payment — about $22,000 — on the Urban Development Action Grant loan used to finance construction of the former Miller Harness building. The payments come to the city, which must use the funds for economic development. Funds not used in one year are carried over to the next.
It’s a good program, but it could be even better if it had more money to distribute. Yes, the city still faces a revenue-shortage problem, but it needs to identify funding sources so it can help property owners do more when it comes to improving their buildings and improving downtown.
Doing so is a good investment for several reasons. The facade improvements increase property values, which should result in more property-tax revenues. The improvements make the city look better. That helps attract more visitors.
Helping to improve the facades of downtown buildings is simply an exercise in self-improvement for the city. It’s an exercise in which the city should work up a sweat.