06/02/11 — City budget scraps incentive grants

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City budget scraps incentive grants

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on June 2, 2011 1:46 PM

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Lisa Prairie helps customers at her downtown coffee shop, Getaway Coffeehouse Cafe. Mrs. Prairie has one of the downtown businesses that has benefited from the incentive grants offered by the Downtown Goldsboro Development Corp.

As the City Council sets dates for its budget workshops leading up to its June 20 deadline to pass a financial plan for the city, the future of Goldsboro's historic downtown district might hang in the balance as the current plan cuts funding for Downtown Goldsboro Development Corp.'s business incentive grant.

The grant program, which first received funding in November 2008, has awarded more than $17,000 dollars to business start-ups or existing businesses moving downtown. Two more businesses, the Arts Council of Wayne County and A New You Nutrition have been awarded the grant but will not begin to receive funds until they open. A New You opened June 1.

The grant provides $400 a month for a year to businesses new to Goldsboro's downtown district to use for advertising, rent or to offset other costs if the business signs a lease for two years or more. The application process only awards the grants to businesses that fit with the city's plans for the area, giving special consideration to restaurants, coffee shops and specialty stores.

Julie Thompson, the director of DGDC, said the grant was not awarded to all who apply.

"It's a competitive process," she said. "The businesses we choose are based on our market analysis."

But the two-year-old program may be scrapped if the City Council doesn't alter the DGDC's budget. The first draft of the city budget did not provide the $24,000 the DGDC requested for the grant program, which has grown from giving two grants at a total of $9,600 in its first full year to handing out five grants totaling $24,000 during the 2010-11 fiscal year.

But Lisa Prairie said, if anything, the city should do more to promote the business incentive grant. As owner of Getaway Coffeehouse Cafe on East Walnut Street, she has seen firsthand how the grant can help new businesses downtown and added that with more marketing, the program could seriously make an impact on downtown's revitalization.

Mrs. Prairie said she was shocked at the area's lack of coffee shops when she and her husband relocated to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Hoping to stay put in Goldsboro, the two decided to open a coffee shop and the downtown district's potential intrigued the entrepreneurs.

"When I was looking for property, they said it was something to look into," she said. "It confirmed that I wasn't the only one that saw the potential."

The grant, she said, has helped her to stay in the black despite unforeseen fees and such that have come up since her business opened Jan. 12, and has even allowed her to advertise around town, but the support she has received from the DGDC has been equally as valuable. She said the staff had been very helpful in cautioning her which fees and permits to expect to have to pay and being a resource for her to lean on, but said that more marketing of the program and grant would likely be a proactive way to bring businesses downtown as she didn't realize the grant was available until after she had settled on a downtown property.

The cutting of the funding combined with a request from the council for Mrs. Thompson to reallocate $11,000 into a new business recruiter position appears to have led to a schism within the DGDC's business recruiting mission as money is being taken away from a grant program with funding being shifted to a new part-time position.

But downtown property owner Ernest Mansour said that the reallocation of funding toward bringing business downtown should be the focus of the DGDC, adding that the events the organization puts on won't bring in new businesses like the grant or recruiter position would.

"I haven't seen any program that we've done downtown that helped get businesses downtown," he said, admitting that, as a DGDC board member and frequent volunteer at downtown events, it could be his fault. "No program has helped like the grant."

And what about the city's proposed cut of the grant to fund the recruiter position? Mansour said if the city can't kick in with more money out of the general fund, then something else should be cut.

Mansour, who owns more than 15 properties in the downtown district, said he has had two businesses rent from him, mostly due to his promotion of the grant program, and he said a recruiter to hawk properties to prospective businesses would help solicit more activity downtown.

Mrs. Thompson said in April she and the DGDC board of directors would support the position more fully if more funding could be found for it outside of her current operating budget. Currently her reallocation of funds toward the new position means cutting bits and pieces from different programs, including the business incentives grant and facade grant, which provides money to new businesses to restore their storefronts.

Mrs. Prairie said the success of the position would likely hinge on its marketing, as she said she would have never thought to seek out a business recruiter while shopping for property downtown.

"I don't know how I would have found that person or how that person would have found me," she said, noting that she went directly to Realtors with available properties when she decided on a downtown location for her coffee shop.

The council has said it will schedule its budget workshops following Monday's meeting. A final budget is expected to be approved June 20.