On Monday, October 27, Milford City Council discussed two grant applications that would benefit the economic development of the city. The first, presented by SaraKate Hammer, President of Downtown Milford, Inc. (DMI) was related to State Bill 191, an economic incentive program signed into law by Governor Jack Markell in order to support and further encourage investment within downtown districts designated within cities. Ms. Hammer said she was providing assistance to the city in the grant process, but that she was not at the council meeting representing DMI.
“Only one city in each county will receive the designation,” Ms. Hammer explained. “It is $7 million in economic development funding that outlines a downtown development district in conjunction with the city’s Comprehensive Plan. We have developed a map that overlays perfectly with downtown development and Milford’s historic areas.” Ms. Hammer explained that businesses within that designated area would have access to a portion of the $7 million fund set aside by state legislators.
Ms. Hammer explained that if Milford received the designation, grants would be made available for rehabilitation, expansion or new construction projects. Requirements are that the building must be commercial, industrial, residential or mixed use and the building owner must provide a minimum qualified investment of $25,000. A grant could then be provided for up to 20 percent of costs above the initial qualified investment. All activity must conform to the Comprehensive Plan.
“The idea is to improve housing, reduce the number of vacant houses and improve designated areas in the towns,” explained Ms. Hammer. “If Milford receives the designation, they keep it for up to five years. Money is available as soon as the designation is made. The best part is that there is no financial obligation from the city.” Ms. Hammer also said that there is an emphasis on historic tax credits through the program as well.
Councilman Skip Pikus asked Ms. Hammer how Milford was applying for the program since it is located in both Kent and Sussex County. She said that they had made the decision to apply through Sussex County as the odds of receiving the designation seemed better in Sussex than in Kent. She said it was not known how many other towns were applying, but that the more that apply, the more chance that the state will fund the project again in the future. Council members voted unanimously to submit the application for the Downtown Development Grant.
In addition to agreeing to submit the application for the Downtown Development Grant, Council also voted unanimously to apply for a $300,000 Economic Development Grant available through the USDA Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program and to fund the required $60,000 match from the city should the grant be approved.
“This would provide a $360,000 fund that we could then loan to Milford businesses at low interest rates for expansion,” Councilman Garrett Grier explained. “By lending the money, we can use the interest repaid to us to build the fund year after year. We need to establish guidelines on how to qualify businesses in order to make it fair, but this could be something the new Economic Development Director could administer.”
Mayor Bryan Shupe said that he originally came across the idea of a small business loan program when he contacted Joe Peel, the Mayor of Elizabeth City, NC, who has a similar program known as the Elizabeth City Downtown Improvement Grant Program.
“several council members are business owners and we are well aware of the challenges that face our local businesses, which includes access to capital,” Mayor Shupe said. “I think if we develop perimeters that establish clear-cut guidelines with no favoritism much like what they did in Elizabeth City, this could be an extremely beneficial program for Milford.” Mayor Shupe also said that the loans would be open to all Milford businesses, not just for the downtown area. He said that he would like to see more restaurants that would keep the downtown area open seven days per week and at night.
City Manager Richard Carmean said that Downtown Milford, Inc. has a smaller fund that is used in a similar fashion and that they have had no problems with defaults on those loans.
“I think the criteria looks good,” said Councilman Dirk Gleysteen. “We have quite a few buildings in Milford that are not up to code, and we all know how cost prohibitive it can be to repair them. I think this fund would go a long way to correcting that problem.”