City of Red Deer Coun. Ken Johnston made an unsuccessful bid to add new money to a downtown storefront improvement matching grant program. (Advocate file photo).

Red Deer city council leverages existing dollars to help improve downtown storefronts

Coun. Johnston gets no support for expanding the program with new money

Considering the city’s huge investment in bridge building “to nowhere,” a Red Deer councillor argued more funds should be found to support downtown small business owners.

Coun. Ken Johnston made a motion on Wednesday to add $100,000 from city reserves to a municipal program that matches the investment downtown property owners make on upgrading their store fronts.

Referring to the $117 million spent over the years on the North Highway Connector project that requires building a new bridge to better link north and south Red Deer, Johnston said “We are committed to big infrastructure projects — including a bridge built to arguably nowhere…”

Given the city’s hefty investment in the North Highway Connector project — which won’t be completed until at least 2028 as local population growth has slowed and provincial grants dried up — Johnston suggested city administrators should be able to find another $100,000 for a high-demand matching grant program for downtown facade improvements.

So many downtown property owners are interested in improving their storefronts that he wanted to ensure the matching grant program could accept a second round of applications in August.

Council heard nine downtown facade upgrades applications were already green-lighted under pre-approved funding, while at least 16 others are awaiting additional city funding.

“It’s gutsy… courageous and visionary,” said Johnston, for so many business owners to invest the face of the pandemic. He urged the city to help them achieve their goals.

While many other council commended Johnston’s intention, they did not support his motion.

Councillors Michael Dawe and Tanya Handley cited the long debate held just last week over how to reduce the 2020 budget and the tax burden on residents.

“Today is not the right day” for adding $100,000 to expenditures, added Coun. Dianne Wyntjes.

Coun. Lawrence Lee didn’t agree on focusing on aesthetic improvements, when the downtown stimulus program was also supposed to spur new mix residential/commercial development, the demolition of derelict buildings, and environmental site clean-ups.

All three of these grant programs drew very few funding applications. But Lee suggested the Christmas season and pandemic could have slowed their momentum.

In the end, all city councillors, except for Lee, voted to transfer the unused portion of money that was leftover from these three grant programs towards the facade upgrade program.

The influx of $230,636 will allow the 16 storefront upgrade project that were already submitted and awaiting funding, to go ahead.

But the facade program will not accept any new applications in the second intake in August, while the other three programs will be open to new applications, as they retain some previously approved money.

Tara Lodewyk, the city’s general-manager of planning, said if the three less popular programs continue to have low demand, then city council could again transfer left-over money from their coffers to the facade program. This could allow for a delayed intake of new applications, perhaps in November.

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