Facade program nearly depleted

Published 10:04 pm Thursday, September 11, 2008

By Staff
Supporters describe it as one of the best provided by the city
Contributing Editor
A popular program that helped downtown property owners improve the facades of their buildings could be coming to an end because the pool of money used to pay for it has all but dried up.
Unless a new source of money is identified, the program faces termination this fiscal year.
The facade-improvement program, which the city administered for 16 years, provided half the cost of an approved project, up to $2,000. However, businesses located on corners or bearing front and rear facades used to receive up to $4,000 — or $2,000 for each facade.
The city used the grant program to encourage businesses to improve their buildings’ appearances. The program is responsible for many of the downtown facade improvements during that period, city officials said.
The city’s contribution to the program came from an annual principal-and-interest payment — about $22,000 — on the Urban Development Action Grant loan used to finance construction of the former Bonnie Products building at the Beaufort County Industrial Park. The payments come to the city, which was required to use the funds for economic development. Funds not used in one year were carried over to the next.
Bobby Roberson, the city’s director of planning and development, said that loan has been paid off and there’s about $1,600 left in the pool. That money will be combined with some of the unused money from last year’s allocations to property owners. Those owners chose not to use their grants, he said.
The combined monies come to about $4,800, which will be divided among this year’s applicants for grants, Roberson said.
Roberson said he believes an oversight by city officials during this year’s budget-making process resulted in no funding being allocated so the program could continue. He plans to ask the City Council to revive the program when it begins putting together the 2009-2010 budget next spring.
Reviving the program will require a source of funds, he said. Programs that provide economic-development grants are a likely source of funds for the program, Roberson said.
The program, which began in fiscal year 1991-1992, awarded 143 grants totaling $256,660 through fiscal year 2007-2008, according to city records. The total cost of improvements made to the downtown properties during that period came to $1,164,784, according to city records. There were no grants awarded in fiscal year 2003-2004.
The total of the yearly grants range from $10,181 in fiscal year 1995-1996 to $33,032 in fiscal year 2002-2003, when the city added extra funds to the program.
Gary Tomasulo, a recipient of one of the grants and president of the Historic Downtown Washington Merchants Association, bemoaned the loss of the program, saying it was a program that benefited many downtown property owners and helped improve the aesthetics of downtown. Tomasulo said he hopes the city can find a way to revive the program.
Tomasulo said that has a property owner he’s willing help provide that funding.
When interviewed about the program in 2004, Jeff Hunnings, owner of The Mecca Grill &Billiards on North Market Street, said he did not know about the program until he talked with city officials about replacing the awning on his restaurant. Roberson suggested he consider seeking a grant, Hunnings added.