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

CLEARWATER — When Community Redevelopment Agency director Amanda Thompson arrived at the city in 2018, she said a grant program designed to attract destination restaurants to downtown wasn’t working. 

So, she and her staff came up with a different program. The Food and Drink program, she said, ended up dishing out $1.2 million and led to the establishment of nine new restaurants and a total of $2.7 million in private investment.

Now the CRA is looking to tackle a pair of different problems — blight and ground-floor vacancies — and it’s willing to ante up just over $1 million to fund three new grant programs.

She said a survey conducted by the code enforcement department found the city has 57 commercial buildings that are vacant in the ground floor in the entire CRA.

“We know that reducing blight and reducing vacancies is critical and this is a path to do that,” Thompson said of the programs that aim to rehabilitate commercial properties.

She said CRA’s staff has spent the past 18 months consulting with tenants and property owners to figure out the best method to make it happen.

The answer was three grants that address the issue for both big and small businesses.

• A beautification grant aims to help fund exterior improvements, such as painting, signage, lighting, doors, windows, site improvements and other minor exterior repairs. 

The grants are for projects that do not exceed $25,000, Thompson said, and the CRA will fully fund grants up to $5,000 and will provide a 50% match toward the total project cost up to a maximum of $12,500.

“This (the beautification grant) is something we know would be helpful to them, and especially to those tenants at the very small businesses, especially in the downtown gateway,” Thompson told the City Council on Feb. 16.

• A whitebox grant aims to assist owners and/or tenants with small renovations in an effort to bring more people downtown. 

“This program is really geared towards long-term or short-term uses that generate pedestrian foot traffic for projects that typically costs $100,000 or less,” she said.

Some of those uses, for example, could be pop-up retail or arts attractions, such as a gallery.

Eligible improvements include exterior and interior improvements. The CRA would fully fund grants up to $25,000 and would provide a 50% match toward the total project costs up to a maximum of $50,000 per project.

• The third proposed grant aims to reduce vacancies by helping property owners fund large-scale renovations.

The grants are for large projects that exceed $500,000 in total project costs. The CRA will provide a 50% match towards the total project costs up to a maximum of $250,000 per project.

While council members were generally pleased with the programs, some did express some concerns.

Council member Mark Bunker said he was worried about giving taxpayer money to property owners who might not need it.

“I’m concerned that there are businesses that were bought since 2017 at two, three or four times the assessed value,” he said, referring to reports about numerous purchases by parishioners of the Church of Scientology. “I’d hate to see us putting a ton of money into a building like that. If they have the money to buy it, they shouldn’t need our help to fix it up.”

Council member Hoyt Hamilton said he would prefer more of the money go toward the tenant or operator of the space rather than a property owner who might just use the improvements to sell the property.

“I’d rather know that the money we’re putting into it is actually going to put life into that space,” he said.

Mayor Frank Hibbard agreed, but said it’s not easy because tenants don’t always have the capital or collateral needed to provide the city the financial security it needs.

He added that a scoring system should possibly be established when determining who the city should partner with on big money grants.

The applicant's reputation and financial wherewithal, he said, should be key factors in the decision-making process.

Thompson said applicants will have to show they are committed to the project to proceed.

“As we get into these higher amounts of money, we should not be the only equity partner, in my opinion,” Thompson said. “There has got to be other people bringing money to the table or they’re not showing us that they believe that success is possible.”

Thompson said she would return in March with more details, so the CRA board could give final approval.