Looking to promote growth and take advantage of an improving economy, the City of Laurel has established a number of new incentives aimed at redevelopment, revitalization and the promotion of minority- and women-owned businesses.
The Laurel City Council recently passed an ordinance authorizing a new economic development program which directs $300,000 of city funding to target specific needs on and around Main Street.
The program increases the amount of grant funding available to businesses relocating to Main Street from $5,000 to $10,000. It also creates two new forgivable loan programs that focus on the general appearance of Main Street.
Under the new Main Street Commercial Facade Grant Program, businesses are offered a rebate of up to $10,000 to renovate their facades. Buildings with historic features qualify for rebates of up to $15,000, while buildings on corner lots are eligible for rebates of up to $20,000.
A similar grant program offering up to $2,500 in matching funds is also in place for the upgrade of signs on Main Street.
According to Jack Brock, deputy director of the city’s Community Planning & Business Services Department, an information session hosted jointly by city officials and the Laurel Board of Trade on April 12 drew a healthy crowd of business owners interested in learning more about the program.
“We’ve had three businesses submit requests for applications already, including a coffee shop, an optometrist and a shoe repair shop that is looking to relocate from Laurel Mall,” Brock said. “It’s been well received.”
The program not only helps existing Main Street merchants, he said, but was designed by the mayor to also assist mall tenants who will need to find a new location when the building is eventually torn down to make way for a new retail center.
On April 20, Mayor Craig Moe announced that the city would also be adjusting its fee schedule to reduce filing fees for Commercial Building Permits, Use & Occupancy Permits and Sign & Banner permits for the period of May 1, 2012, through April 30, 2013, for certain properties in the Main Street area, which spans from First Street to Seventh Street, including the side streets lying within the boundary formed by U.S. Route 1 North, Montgomery Street, Fourth Street and the Patuxent River.
According to a release issued by the city, the goal of assisting new or relocating businesses is to help local business owners succeed and continue to provide local jobs for Laurel residents.
Michelle Arsenault, president of the Laurel Board of Trade, said the facade grants are very much needed on Main Street. “The mayor has been going easy on owners during the hard economic times because it takes money to maintain the appearance, but now that the economy is starting to revive, he’s telling them it’s time to pay attention and clean up,” she said.
It’s also an attempt to revive the area and make it a destination again. “It used to be a nice place just to walk around, with a number of restaurants and antique stores,” Arsenault said. “We’re trying to encourage that to come back.”
That just might happen for Laurie Blitz, who used to operate the Something Special Coffee Shop on Main Street, but closed the business when the economy got tight. She still sells coffee, albeit online; but someday soon, she said, she could return to the street she grew up on.
“I’m considering it,” Blitz said. “It’s a great program because of the relocation grant and the fact that it’s forgivable over a five-year period makes it very attractive. The city is really jumping through hoops, and the people at the information session were all excited and hopeful. This could really do a lot for a small startup.”
Another businessperson looking to take advantage of the new incentives is Keith Johnson, owner of Keith’s Treats & Eats, a bakery operation on Route 1 near Laurel Mall that specializes in sweet potato breads, cakes and other baked goods.
“It would benefit us to put a shop on Main Street to get some exposure and familiarize people with the brand,” said Johnson, adding that while his products have been picked up by local Wegmans grocery stores, he still suffers a lack of visibility in his home city.
“I’ve looked at some spaces on Main Street in the past, but this has definitely brought my interest up a bit,” he said.
At its April 23 legislative session, the Laurel City Council expanded the city’s efforts to help local businesses by passing a resolution encouraging projects within the city to utilize local, women-owned and minority contractors and vendors.
“This resolution doesn’t require that these groups be favored in any way,” said Councilman Fred Smalls (Ward 2), “but it allows us to use the city’s discretion to increase contracting opportunities for minority businesses, women-owned businesses and local businesses.”
Arsenault said she welcomed the new emphasis the city is placing on women and minorities with the resolution.
“At our Board of Trade events, I’ve noticed that these groups tend to be the real go-getters,” she said. “The incentives are a great idea to convince startups to come to Main Street. If it works, maybe we won’t feel such a crunch with so many vacant storefronts.”