Even though past programs designed to get more business owners to move to the Historic Main Street District have garnered little interest, city officials are not giving up on offering incentives in an attempt to spark a revitalization of the corridor.
According to officials in the city's Department of Community Planning and Business Services, $300,000 is available through four incentive programs, but most of the funds remain in city coffers because few applications have been filed by business owners interested in moving to Main Street.
The Main Street Commercial Property Improvement Program, which city officials rolled out late last month, is the newest incentive program. Included in the area are properties that are on Main Street as far west as Seventh Street and Main Street's side streets from Route 1 northbound to Fourth Street; north of Main Street to the Patuxent River; Route 1 northbound from Montgomery Street to the Patuxent River; and Lafayette Avenue from Main Street to Irving Street.
Through the new program, business owners who qualify can receive a forgivable loan of up to $25,000 to renovate an existing commercial space, with the goal of attracting commercial tenants to vacant, ground-floor storefronts in the Main Street corridor. This program targets new and expanding businesses. City officials said once an approved project has been completed, the property owner or authorized tenant will have the loans forgiven over a five-year period.
"As long as they stay in business for five years, they will get 20 percent forgiven off the loan each year over the five years," said Jack Brock, the city's deputy economic development director. "If they stay in business for only three years and leave, only 60 percent of the loan will be forgiven. But if they stay in business five years, it's 100 percent forgiven."
Under the program, Brock said renovations could include interior improvements, such as painting, wall repairs or heating and air conditioning installation, that meet city codes and improve the appearance of a building. Business owners who do not own their buildings can qualify for the program as well if they have written approval of the property owner, have been in business for more than five years and have a minimum of three years left on their current lease.
Through this program, city officials are hoping to attract new types of businesses to Main Street, but not all would qualify. For instance, a bakery, coffee shop, fine dining restaurant or health club are welcome, but an auto shop, fast food restaurant, dry cleaners, cash-checking company or liquor store would not qualify.
Husband and wife Ron and Audrey Sturdivant had a grand opening for their Norwood Boutique on Main Street this week, and Audrey Sturdivant said she plans to apply for incentive programs offered by the city. Sturdivant, who sells jewelry, clothes, shoes and handbags at her boutique that shares space with Royal Bridal and Tuxedo, said she hopes to get a grant or forgivable loan through one of the programs for renovations and signage.
"One of the main reasons I moved to Main Street from Montgomery County was the possibility of getting a grant," Sturdivant said. "I'm filling out paperwork for the signage and relocation programs, but I haven't turned them in because I'm still getting estimates and the receipts that have to go along with the applications."
Sturdivant is referring to the Main Street Business Relocation Grant, Storefront Facade Improvement and Sign Grant programs. Through the signage program, commercial property and authorized business owners on Main Street, not the entire corridor, can receive grants of up to $2,500. Larger loan rebates are offered for the facade program. Those who own property in ground-floor spaces in the entire corridor can receive up to $10,000 in loan rebates for facade improvements.
Monica Price, owner of Laurel Health Food in the 300 block of Main Street, said she received more than $6,000 in grants through the incentive programs. Price, whose family operated their health food business on Route 1 for more than 40 years, moved to Main Street last year, partly because of the incentives.
"We were looking to move and my plumber told me to talk to Karl Brendle (Laurel's economic director). I called him and he told me about the programs and got things going," Price said. "The process went pretty quickly and with the money, we were able to put over $4,000 into our kitchen. We needed plumbing work and had to get a grease trap and other work, so the grant was a big help. Without it, we couldn't have opened the kitchen."
Price offers a diabetic menu of soups, low-carb pizzas and other items as well as the vitamins and organic groceries sold in the store. In addition to opening the kitchen, similar to one they operated in their Route 1 location, Price said they also qualified for relocation grant funds, also a big .
The relocation program has been in existence for several years now, and increased from a maximum of $5,000 when it started to up to $10,000 to help businesses with moving costs to Main Street. This program has been the most successful, but still only three grants have been awarded.
Christian Pulley, a city planner in the Economic Development Department, said in addition to Price, the owners of Eye Can See Optical in the 300 block of Main Street and Extravadance in the 100 block of Washington Boulevard both received $10,000 relocation grants.
"A wellness spa's owner has applied for a relocation grant and their application is pending, but no other businesses have applied for the grants," Pulley said. "We get lots of inquiries, but many people do not follow through with filing the application. It's not a lengthy application. You have to have a business plan, a lease agreement, the desired work laid out and have work receipts. To my knowledge, we haven't turned any applicants down."