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The city’s Community Redevelopment Agency approved two new grants in an effort to tackle blight and ground floor vacancies, such as these storefronts along Cleveland Street in the downtown core.

CLEARWATER — City leaders concerned about blight and vacant properties in downtown and the rest of the community redevelopment district have had several discussions about whether to take the carrot or stick approach.

On March 15, they decided to give carrots a shot, approving a pair of programs that, starting May 1, will offer commercial businesses as much as $50,000 to improve their properties.

The first program aims to improve the visual appearance of properties through small-scale exterior building and site improvements.

“The objectives of the program are, in short, to make buildings look better in the CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency) commercial ground floor buildings,” CRA director Amanda Thompson said.

Beautification program

City Council members, sitting as CRA trustees, agreed to put $250,000 toward the Commercial Beautification program, which is for property owners or tenants and is geared toward projects of $25,000 or less.

If the improvements are $5,000 or less, the city will fully fund eligible projects. For those more than that, the city will provide a 50% match toward the total project cost up to $12,500.

Eligible improvements include painting, signage, lighting, doors, windows, roof, site improvements, and other minor exterior repairs.

Also, the property has to be deemed in poor or fair condition by CRA staff.

“So, if your property’s been recently painted and you just decided you’d like a new door, you would not be eligible,” Thompson said.

The property must also be free of liens and judgments, and must have a tenant by the time the improvements are made.

Mayor Frank Hibbard asked Thompson how the CRA arrived at the size of the grant.

Thompson said most CRAs around the state don’t match up to 50%, but she felt Clearwater’s needed a bigger catalyst.

“In our context, I think that we have to do more. We have to do a higher-level match than 10% or 25% because of our current market condition,” she said, adding the grants are limited to two years because she thinks the redevelopment of Coachman Park is going to dramatically change conditions.

Hibbard said he was actually thinking they might be too low.

“Twenty-five thousand doesn’t go very far anymore,” he said, noting the rising cost of materials.

He added that he wants to review the program after six months to see how many people apply and if numbers are right.

“If they’re going like hot cakes and people are doing $25,000 projects, that’s marvelous,” he said. “But if they’re not being consumed, then I don’t want to wait for two years.”

Whitebox grant

The larger program, the Whitebox grant, intends to help owners or tenants with renovating vacant commercial spaces to attract businesses that generate foot traffic downtown.

A survey conducted by the code enforcement department found the city has 57 commercial buildings that are vacant on the ground floor in the redevelopment district.

Bringing vacant properties up to current building and fire codes will increase the number of commercial spaces suitable for “pop-up” uses, which will create new retail and cultural destinations downtown, according to Thompson.

Therefore, the grants are limited to future retail and restaurants, personal services, galleries, studios, cultural and community gathering spaces.

CRA will fully pay projects up to $25,000. More than that and it will offer a 50% match up to $50,000.

Properties must have a tenant once the work is done with a minimum of two-year lease. If the risk is high, Thompson said, the CRA attorney could require that the grantee offer some form of personal guarantee.

“I really like these two programs,” council member Kathleen Beckman said. “I like that the tenants or the property owners have to invest their own funds and I like that they have to have a tenant secured. That’s our whole goal, right?”

Thompson said a third grant that also aims to reduce vacancies by helping property owners fund large-scale renovations would be brought before the council later this month.

She had previously said those grants would be for as much as $250,000 per project.

While the focus has been on downtown, the two approved programs will be available throughout the entire CRA.

It will just be up to the property owners or tenants if they wish to apply.

“We can provide the water, but we can’t make people drink,” Hibbard said.