ELLSWORTH, Maine — Using state grant funds, the city is helping business owners spruce up the city, one building at a time.
Earlier this year, the city was awarded a $150,000 grant under the Department of Economic and Community Development’s Community Enterprise Grant program. While $20,000 of the grant was funneled toward a business microloan program that is still being developed, the remaining $130,000 went to continue the city’s facade improvement program, according to city planner Michelle Gagnon.
The city had used a similar grant in 2004 to start the facade program, which was very popular, Gagnon said. This round, the grant funds were allocated to 12 businesses, all within the city’s downtown area.
“The program is open for all businesses in the city’s urban core area, which is a fairly large area,” Gagnon said Thursday. “It just happened that this time, most of the applications were in the downtown area.”
The program provides funds for a variety of improvements to commercial and mixed-use properties and in the past has funded projects including painting, new windows, siding and improved walkways. It requires a 25 percent match from the business.
This year, a dozen businesses, ranging from an attorney’s office and optician to a nail salon and a furniture maker, received funding through the program.
The city recently advertised for interested contractors to work with businesses through the facade program. Because the state grant program is federally funded, contractors must meet certain federal requirements, Gagnon said.
“It is a very involved process with a lot of paperwork,” she said. “We work on the paperwork to get them pre-approved ahead of time.”
To qualify for the program, businesses must be located within what has been determined to be a “blighted” area. According to Gagnon, the term blighted has a very broad definition, and items such as old roof shingles can qualify as blight.
The overall goal, she said, is to improve the appearance of commercial buildings in the urban core area and to improve the business climate.
“If your buildings look good, more people will be willing to stop,” she said.
The benefit of this type of program, she said, is that it often can generate more improvements to local businesses than are funded through the grants.
“If you have one business making improvements, it prompts others to become more motivated to do some work,” Gagnon said. “More people become interested in making an investment.”
Also, she said, the improvements stay with the building, even if the business moves or the building is sold.
“The improvements don’t disappear if the business moves,” she said. “It’s almost like an infrastructure project. The improvements stay even if the business fails or moves.”
Although the grants are made available to businesses as a no-interest, no-payback loan, businesses have to remain at the site for at least five years. If they move before that time, the businesses are required to pay back the loan based on a prorated schedule. Any funds returned to the city are funneled back into the program and made available for other businesses.