At last night’s City Finance Committee meeting, members approved a new program that would provide half a million dollars in grant money to downtown businesses. The Downtown Recovery Program would distribute individual grants of up to $25,000 to Madison’s independent businesses.
The money comes as local businesses have struggled with COVID-19 closures followed by property damage and rioting earlier this month. Several establishments had windows and glass shattered and merchandise stolen during the chaos.
At last night’s meeting, Alder Mike Verveer, who represents State Street, spoke in favor of the new program. He said that many merchants still haven’t recovered from the double hit of the COVID-19 closures and riots.
“It has just been heartbreaking day after day after day talking to these merchants, as I have been, every day since they’ve been victimized by the rioting,” he said.
But, Alder Rebecca Kemble said that the program, which is specifically designated for downtown businesses, doesn’t do enough to address the needs of other city businesses affected by COVID-19 and systemic racism.
“I have concerns about how State Street businesses whose insurance companies aren’t paying out their losses rise to this level of priority, given everything else we’re facing in the city at this time,” she said. “There are other businesses that have been damaged. And there are other people and businesses that have been affected by issues in our city. I just wonder how this rises to the top of our priorities for emergency funding.”
The new program would only be available to local business owners. That means businesses must have a Dane County address, and at least half of the owners must live in the county.
The finance committee’s decision came shortly after a group of State Street businesses submitted a letter to Common Council members and the Mayor requesting financial and logistical aid.
In their letter, the business owners mourned the change of State Street from a “once vibrant, eclectic, iconic street transformed into a plywood Band-Aid,” and demanded relief from the city.
Those demands include commercial rent subsidies, a commitment by the city to help new Black and minority-owned businesses fill vacant commercial spaces and the temporary transition of State Street into a pedestrian mall without buses and bikes every Thursday through Sunday.
They also demanded more security cameras along State Street. According to reporting from Isthmus, the City has about 60 cameras in downtown Madison.
And, the continuous removal of graffiti by the city, as well as further maintenance of Lisa Link Peace park, which according to the letter has become an, “undesirable area due to illegal activities and harassment.”
The letter was submitted anonymously, and did not identify any specific businesses. According to Alder Verveer, the businesses who wrote the letter fear retribution.
“In the myriad of emails we’ve received, you probably saw one today from a group of State Street merchants,” he said. “They’re so scared that they’re anonymous. They won’t even attach their name to this letter because they’re so scared of some form of retribution. They are begging for the help of city hall.”
M Adams, an organizer with Freedom, Inc. says that the city should be more focused on supporting Black lives instead of businesses.
“You know it’s really interesting that right now, as people are fighting against anti-black violence, that governments know how to respond to the needs of businesses. They can empathize with businesses, they respond quickly. Policy, law and culture; all these things protect businesses. We’re saying the same infrastructure, policy and resources in place to protect a broken window is what we need in place to protect a black life,” Adams says.
The Downtown Recovery Program passed the Finance Committee four to two. It will now go before Madison’s Common Council for a final vote at the council’s meeting next month.