A Day in the Life

Columbia invests $745,000, gets $6.9 M in storefront improvements, city figures show

Main Street businesses have reaped about $745,000 in public money to help improve their storefronts within the past five years, and City Hall now is looking to turn its attention to a stretch of Two Notch Road.
The city's Facade Improvement program has issued $744,297 in federal grant-funded loans to 40 businesses since the summer of 2010, according to records in Columbia's Office of Business Opportunities. The money has been used on storefronts stretching from the central business district to I-20.

That public investment has resulted in or coincided with $6.9 million in private money spent giving a facelift to 25 blocks of the Capital City's main artery, the office said.

The low-interest and forgivable loans are designed as seed money to spruce up storefronts a primer for private money. Loan recipients must come up with 80 percent of the cost of improvements before they can get government money.

Some of the improved storefronts along North Main that participated include the Blue Ribbon Cab Co., Zesto restaurant, Frank's Carwash, Kim's Beauty and Variety Store and the Lutheran Seminary.

Zesto, with its familiar blue and white checkerboard front, sits in the shadow of the former Eau Claire town hall. The $300,000 to $400,000 remodeling project is due to be completed in March using $40,000 in public money, said Gerry Lynn Hall, program manager for the loan program.

"People are starting to look and say, 'Hey, this is a nice area,'" said Tommy Burkett, who was born and raised in the neighborhood and owns businesses and property there. "Now you notice the buildings rather than just drive by them."

Businesses along six blocks of the central business district, closest to the State House, received $425,829 in public loans, according to the figures from the business office. The maximum loan was $20,000.

Those blocks, predictably, drew the most private investment, city officials said. The nearly half-million in public investment in the city center itself generated $6,176,060 in private money, the figures show. Private dollars along North Main, north of Elmwood Avenue, amounted to $753,715, for a total along the entire corridor of $6,929,775, the business office reports.

The private dollars include 80 percent loan-matching money as well as storefront improvements not tied to the facade loan program, said Tina Herbert, director of the business opportunities office.

Storefront loans went to 10 businesses or buildings along the city-center portion of Main Street, three went to Assembly Street, two to Sumter Street and one to Blanding Street's Villa Tronco. The 1600 block of the business district was the chief downtown beneficiary, receiving five loans, business office records show. Improvements in that block were made to Mark's Menswear, Paradise Ice, the Habernicht building, Main & Taylor and a law firm.

Since February 2012, 24 businesses on long-blighted North Main have received $318,468 in public money, with a $10,000 cap per loan, the figures show. That has generated $753,715 in private investment. The private money includes $380,350 that is not from matching funds, according to the city.

Herbert told City Council last week during an update on the status of the loan program, "We are winding down North Main Street and moving onto Two Notch Road."

She said the North Main program has $50,000 left over and that amount will be transferred to help come up with the $300,000 loan pool planned for the Two Notch Road program later this year.

That phase will cover a 22-block stretch that extends from the edges of Providence Hospital to Pine Belt Road. However much of the right side of Two Notch heading out of town is not eligible because its average household income is too high to qualify, said Deborah Livingston, the city's director of Community Development.

But to reach the $300,000 amount, Herbert said council will have to appropriate $100,000 during the fiscal year that begins July 1 and the city must include another $100,000 from the federal grant program. The business office plans to add $50,000 from its 2015-16 budget, she said.
The prospect of nicer storefronts along Two Notch appeals to a skeptical James McGraw, who owns three retail businesses and some office space on the 2300 block. "So far, I'm happy with what I've seen," McGraw told council last week.

Diane Wiley, a community activist from the Belvedere neighborhood near Two Notch and Beltline Boulevard, said it's time to invest along that corridor.

"We want prettiness that everyone else has," Wiley said.

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