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Council discusses city-wide business improvement program

CARIBOU, Maine — Caribou City Council had a first read on a proposed community improvement grant program that would be open to all businesses in the city. The program would mirror a recently adopted facade improvement program, but include businesses outside of the downtown tax increment financing district.

The facade improvement grant program, adopted on Aug. 24, offers matching grant funds to improve the facades of commercial and mixed-use properties within Caribou’s designated downtown TIF District.

The facade program aims to fight blight, boost economic development and improve the city’s overall appearance. It will offer grant funding for restoring and renovating storefronts as well as commercial signs and awnings that are in poor condition.

Under the program, grant recipients are eligible for up to 50 percent reimbursement, not to exceed $7,500, of the costs following completion of the work. The city will provide these funds via an annual competitive application process with a March 15 deadline. Notification of funding availability will be published in the newspaper and on the city’s website and social media.

A facade improvement committee will then review applications based on eligibility criteria. This includes a requirement for all improvements to be visible from a public right-of-way. The repair and improvement criteria includes exterior siding work, restoring or replacing windows and doors, applying a fresh coat of paint to the building, enhancing signs or building decorative or privacy fencing.

Applicants will be notified of their awards on April 15 and, if funding is still available, the city may hold a fall application process.

The program the council discussed on Sept. 8 would provide these benefits to all businesses in the city, not just those within the downtown area. 

Before their discussion, Caribou City Clerk Danielle Brissette read a letter from Caribou resident and former councilor Gary Aiken, who raised concerns about the proposed program.

“It states, as drafted, that the community improvement program would be available to all businesses in the city without regard for location and would start next year,” Aiken wrote. “Does this mean that anyone doing business out of their home, such as accountants, would be able to get their house painted and be eligible for a grant to cover part of the cost from the city?”

He also asked if a landlord owning 10 different business locations in the city could have all of their tenants apply for the grant, reimburse them for their share, and improve their real estate holdings at the taxpayer’s expense.

Aiken said the program as drafted seems to contain a great deal of loopholes, and recommended that if it is adopted, there should be a provision that sitting council members and their immediate families are not eligible for any available grants. 

Caribou City Manager Dennis Marker introduced the program as a first read, and said an important discussion item would be the amount of available funds set aside for the program.

He said the city has accumulated more than $200,000 in funds slated for loans and some of that is being used by the Caribou Economic Growth Council, in addition to funds that are sitting in a revolving loan fund and also managed through CEGC.

“We welcome any comments from anybody in Caribou about this program and how we could set it up,” Mayor Mark Goughan said. 

Marker said one of the potential issues with the program is that Caribou would be essentially competing with the Northern Maine Development Commission, which receives money via federal government programs, and the CEGC for economic development loans. He said the CEGC will manage the city’s revolving loan funds through the program, but it also will be trying to loan out its own funds. 

“We are trying to make a balance and let businesses know there is a lot of money out there,” he said. “There are some opportunities, and if we want to create even more flexibility with our funds, we can do that as a bridge to some of the other funding sources that are out there.”

He said business owners would be looking at all the available grants, and weighing the pros and cons such as the amount of available funds as well as the strings attached.

“There’s not much competition out there for giving away money,” Goughan said. “I don’t think Northern Maine Development or anyone is going to care if we give away a little bit of money.”

Councilor Jody Smith suggested determining a specific amount of money to be set aside for this program. 

Marker said that with about $12,000 being set aside for the facade improvement program, the council could decide to reserve a similar amount for the citywide program through the budget process or by tapping existing revolving loan funds or future TIF funds.

Councilors Smith and Doug Morrell also brought up Aiken’s point about someone potentially using the funds to paint their house if they ran a business from home. 

Marker said that, as an example, if someone ran a real estate office on Main Street with a storefront on a highly visible corridor and lived in the upper floor of the building, they could still technically apply for the funds if they wanted to redo their siding. 

Morrell said this issue should definitely be addressed as the council moves forward.

Caribou City Council’s next meeting is set for 6 p.m. Sept. 21.

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