(WORT) — The City of Madison is hoping to slow the conversion of downtown retail spaces to bars and restaurants by providing incentives for independent retailers.
This week the mayor’s office announced that the city will offer matching grants of up to $50,000 for independent retailers looking to renovate their State Street area stores. The grants are funded through TIF, or tax increment financing, and officials say they’re intended to “create an attractive environment and encourage neighborhood character” downtown.
What prompted the new grant program?
Ruth Rohlich, City of Madison Business Development Specialist, says it has to do with a strategic vision of development for the downtown area that doesn’t put all its eggs in one basket.
“Alder [Verveer], folks from Downtown Madison Inc., the mayor, and the Office of Economic Development began to discuss things other cities had done to help maintain a healthy balance of retail, restaurant, and bar.”
Rohlich says a drift toward more bars downtown has to do with a variety of factors, from the growing number of young professionals and graduating seniors now living downtown, to the higher rent that restaurants, especially those that serve alcohol, can fetch.
“Once you convert a space to a restaurant or bar, once those expenses are put in like lines for beer or oven hoods, really you can only maintain that initial expense by continuing to have it yield those really high rents that restaurants and bars can bring in,” Rohlich says.
The city of Madison expects to review grant applications from a diverse array of independent retailers, chain and non-chain alike. Rohlich says businesses with independent purchasing power, 50% ownership in Dane County, and leases of five years or more are eligible.
So what are retailers on State Street saying about the grants?
Sandy Torkildson, owner of Room of One’s Own bookstore just off State Street, says she’s considering applying.
“I’m really happy with it” she says. “It really does have the potential to help businesses.”
But Sachi Komai, co-owner of the Anthology gift and craft store on State, says the grant might be better suited to owner-occupied businesses.
“Our lease is up in two years and it’s just a big unknown,” she says.
“Maybe once we find out if there’s a renewal option we would look into a grant. But you just always think, landlords can charge so much more for a restaurant space, it’s just so tantalizing for them.”
Some independent storeowners have already invested in renovations they hope will attract new clientele from among the area’s changing demographics.
Marcel Colbert, co-owner of Art Gecko gift shop, hopes the broader frontage and brighter space of his new State Street store will help draw in more “mall-shoppers,” as well as “small-shoppers.”
He says the grants are a positive way to invest in the community. But he’d also like to see the city do more to help small businesses in the face of management company buy-ups in the area.
But even with so much change on State Street, itself a microcosm of the development happening throughout Madison, Colbert is an eternal optimist.
“There’s an energy to the street that I don’t think even having higher end stores or a different aesthetic, isn’t going to affect it.”
The City of Madison will be accepting applications for the downtown retail improvement grants for the next two years.