The Elmira Business Improvement Area (BIA) is putting the finishing touches on a new plan that aims to spruce up the downtown area. Its community improvement plan (CIP) introduces a host of new financial incentives that, if approved by Township of Woolwich council, will open up a raft of new funding for businesses in the core looking to make material improvements to their businesses.
Potentially hundreds or thousands of dollars will be on offer for Elmira’s downtown businesses interested in renovating and upgrading their storefronts, either through grants or loans for work such as façade improvements, sign replacements and public art installations.
“The Community Improvement Plan: Improving the Public Realm is the true title of the document. At its roots, it’s an economic development tool,” explained Jon Clay, chair of the Elmira BIA board, which is a committee of township council.
More than just an exercise, the CIP is a legal requirement that gives the township real power to provide grants and loans to businesses in Elmira. Last year the BIA, which counts some 100 businesses in its membership, increased its levy fees on members for the first time in its 30-year history to take in $50,000 a year. The CIP allows the BIA to reinvest that money back into member businesses to improve the community.
“The BIA had heard lots of comments from businesses downtown, even the public in general, that it needed some work,” said Clay. “And we wanted to invest some of the money that we’ve been getting from our new levy increase, and put it to good use. And not just put things down … that was just a park bench here, a bike rack there, a new planter box, that was dictated by the four or five board members that we are.”
There are eight financial incentive programs being proposed for the plan, which still requires township council approval before it can be implemented. The key one is the façade incentive program, which would essentially see the BIA put up its accumulated levy dollars to fund improvement projects.
Businesses will be able to apply for funding for projects such as restorative work to their storefronts, façade improvements and redesigns, cleaning, masonry, brick or woodwork, and replacement or repair work on doors, windows, awnings and more. The BIA would potentially support a third of the costs up to $5,000 through an interest-free loan, or provide a grant of a third up to $3,000.
Beyond the façade are programs for signage replacements, repairs and redesigns (a grant of 50 per cent up to $1,500), landscape grants (50 per cent up to $2,500) and building improvements (50 per cent up $3,500 for an interest free loan, or up to $2,000 for a grant). The BIA is also willing to foot half the bill for design and environmental studies (up to $2,500), covering site plans, engineering or architectural drawings, and structural analysis, and will chip in to bring businesses up to current accessibility standards as well with an accessibility grant.
“The truth is, not all of them will be put in place in any given year,” cautioned Clay about the eight incentive programs being proposed. “We are likely going to be focusing on the façade improvement one this year, and then allocate funds towards that. A lot of that has to do with [the façade program being] a big reason why this whole thing started.”
The CIP allows the Elmira BIA to begin to dole out the funds to businesses for projects like the façade program. But, more than that, having a CIP is a prerequisite to apply for even more funding from governments, including the Township of Woolwich.
“With something like this, we have a much better chance of garnering those funds from the government,” said Clay. “As I mentioned at council … they might not have seen the last of me either.”
The township has yet to put money into the incentive program just yet, notes Elmira Coun. Scott McMillan.
“The township hasn’t put any money forward yet. The BIA worked to increase the money they collect from the BIA businesses so they could fund the creation of the CIP,” said McMillan, who is council’s representative on the board.
Asked if the township might contribute to funding the incentive programs, he said it would have to be a decision made by council.
“It might. So we could just rely on provincial and federal funding. We could look to have money from the BIA. Or we could look at money from the township. But that would all be decisions to be made going forward. Approving the CIP doesn’t commit us to any funding from the township or any funding from the BIA.”
The CIP will be returning to council later this month for final approval, after which implementation of the plan can begin. The CIP calls for the creation of an advisory committee to review applications for grants and loans, and the creation of an “urban design guideline” to create a guide for improvements to the downtown core.