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Downtown Incentive Grant program set to begin in Whiteville

Allen Turner, The News Reporter

With the formal approval last week by the Whiteville City Council, a Downtown Improvement Grant (DIG) program hopes to incentivize business owners and merchants to make their buildings more attractive and appealing.

Downtown businessman and Whiteville Downtown Development Commission chairman John Fisher sang the praises of the DIG program Saturday.

“I think it’s great and I’m all for it,” he said. “I think it’s a real incentive for the downtown Whiteville business district. People want to see the district prosper and I’m really happy and proud of that attitude where the property owners and the city partner to create and improve a situation like we already have downtown. With programs like this, the city is making it easier for people to invest in downtown and bring it to fruition. I think that’s what’s happening.”

The program aims to foster cooperation between the city and businesses in the downtown Municipal Service District (MSD) – essentially all areas between Lee and Franklin streets between Webster Street to the north and the intersection of Lee, Franklin and Madison streets to the south – to improve and enhance the appearance of businesses in the area by providing matching funds of up to $2,000 per property to owners who want to upgrade the facades of their businesses.

The program is limited to the MSD because it is funded with proceeds of a special 12 cents per $100 of valuation that is levied only on properties located within the district.

Because the program is brand new, no property owners or their tenants have applied yet, but Whiteville Economic Development Director Sean Martin said two have asked for the application packet and others are expected to follow suit soon. He expects applications to start being officially filed in coming days and weeks.

“We are encouraging folks to apply,” Martin said Sunday. “This program is a concrete example of how property owners can get some return on that 12 cents MSD tax they’re paying. The idea of course is to increase business patronage downtown by improving the appearance of storefronts.”

While only $7,500 is currently budgeted for the program, Martin hopes that it will prove to be so popular that he’ll soon be appearing before city council to ask for approval of a budget amendment to increase that total.

Both Martin and Mayor Terry Mann say they got the impression from council members that they will be amenable to increasing the budget for the program if it proves to be popular. “We really didn’t get into a deep discussion about it,” Mann said Saturday, “but what I heard council say the other night was that they would look favorably at putting more money into it if the demand is there.”

Martin called the Whiteville city council proactive.

“In talking with my peers in other cities from around the state, I hear them say they’ve got some great ideas but that they can’t get their city councils to act on those ideas,” Martin said. “I feel very fortunate to work for a council that’s proactive instead of reactive.”

The DIG grants will be strictly reimbursable, which means that projects must be complete before grant recipients receive any money. Although the maximum amount that can be awarded per project is $2,000, business owners can apply for any amount up to $2,000. The grants will involve a 50-50 match, which means that for every dollar kicked in by the city, the property owner must also spend at least one dollar.

In addition to being located in the MSD, only commercial buildings are eligible for funding. No funding will be awarded for private residences or other non-commercial uses. Either property owners or tenants can apply, but tenants requesting funding must have written permission from the property owner with the grant application. Owners or business operators may apply annually but an application may only be awarded for an individual property every two years. Only one grant will be awarded per property per fiscal year and applicants who do not get funding can reapply during the same fiscal year.

Examples of eligible projects include things like removal of false fronts, siding, or metal awnings or canopies, cleaning of brick, stone, or other building face materials, sign removal or replacement, canvas awning installation, front window or door repairs, repainting of building façades only, structural repairs to building faces, restoration, addition or replacement of exterior fixtures, addition or replacement of address information, restoration of historic architectural features, costs associated with project design or construction such as architectural, engineering, or consultant fees, demolition costs associated with an approved project. window, display, or storefront design, exterior lighting or reopening or grand opening advertising.

All projects would be subject to approval by city council. Approval or disapproval of applications will be made in-house by city staff. Martin expects quick turnaround times.

“That’s the good part about handling in-house and not using a review board,” he said. “We can get these applications turned around quickly, probably a couple of days – maybe a week or two depending on the scope of the project – but we will be able to make decisions quickly.

Martin, City Manager Darren Currie and Planning Director Robert Lewis will make the decisions on which applications are approved along with, in some cases depending on the scope of work, the building inspector and fire marshal.

“We will review the applications and, with the applying business, make changes as need be to get the money in their hands to do these projects rapidly.”

The economic development planner sees the DIG program as complementing two other already-existing incentive programs for the MSD: one for utility incentives and the other for tax incentives. The purpose of the utility incentive program is to encourage and attract businesses downtown by assisting with the cost of water and wastewater utilities. A one-time disbursal to eligible businesses can be made for up to two years.

The tax incentive program is designed to encourage rehabilitation and redevelopment of older properties and, in essence, would rebate a portion of the property owner’s city tax bill based on the property’s increased tax value. Martin hopes to have additional information about the DIG program, as well as the utility incentive and tax incentive programs, available online in the next few days from the city’s website at whitevillenc.gov.

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Stuart Rogers