College Park officials believe they have found a way to rid the city of commercial vacancies and attract new businesses to the area if a state grant they’ve applied for is awarded.
The city’s Planning, Community and Economic Development Department has proposed launching a commercial tenant improvement program that would award matching grants to businesses for interior renovations of as much as $30,000 or comprising an area of as large as 20,000 square feet — assuming the city gets a $180,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.
Peter Casazza, owner of Big Planet Comics on U.S. 1 in College Park, said he is considering some new light fixtures and fresh paint after learning about the business incentive program from the city and said new business owners eyeing commercial space in the city would be just as excited if offered the incentive.
Although applying businesses would have to match what the city gives them for renovations, the businesses would not have to pay the grant amount back, city officials said. The only money used by the city would be money received from the state, as outlined in the program’s current plan.
“For any business, there’s always something to be done,” Casazza said, regarding the incentive program. “I think it’s a great idea.”
If College Park were awarded the full $180,000, city officials say it would pay for roughly eight to 10 business renovation projects, depending on the types of projects.
Michael Stiefvater, the city’s economic development coordinator, said he hopes the incentive will attract new businesses to the downtown area, where there are 270 businesses, but 35 are vacant. He said both existing businesses and businesses looking to relocate to College Park would be eligible and said simply having such a program that caters to the business community has potential to attract new commercial tenants.
“One of [the] biggest expenses when retail opens is the cost of fitting their new space to their needs,” he said.
Stiefvater said the city expects the state to make a decision on the grant application by December. He said if the state does not approve the grant application, the planning department will look toward the City Council during its spring budget discussions to see if the city can fund the program, noting that if the city took on the program, it likely would be for a lesser amount.
Casazza said he thinks the program is a good way to bring in new businesses, especially for owners and leaseholders who might not have a large startup budget.
“So many stores open on a shoestring budget. They open up and don’t have a lot of money, and businesses aren’t prepared for the slow times,” said Casazza, who has owned the comic book store for five years. “Anything that helps spruce up the area is a good thing.”
Rather than giving grant funding for facades and exterior work, the improvement program is specifically for interiors and can include renovations to flooring, walls, windows, heating, air conditioning, plumbing and other interior fixtures.
Terry Shum, the city’s director of planning, said officials wanted to focus on helping with interior improvements that are primarily structural, such as windows and heating systems. She said doing so will help ensure that if businesses relocate, the vacant commercial space is in good condition for the next occupant.
“The tenant is responsible usually 100 percent for doing whatever they need to do to the interior,” she said. “We have spaces anywhere from a cold, dark shell to ones that are up and running and only need cosmetic work.”