City receives a state grant for businesses

$100,000 is designated for facade improvements

Dollar-for-dollar match required

Program targets Main St. and Pennsylvania Ave.

Westminster

July 05, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Westminster's efforts to spruce up downtown have gotten another boost with a $100,000 state grant that will provide qualified businesses a dollar-for-dollar match to improve facades.

Effective this week, the city's Facade Improvement Program will give up to $20,000 to each approved applicant to add or repair fixtures such as signs, awnings, lighting, steps, windows and painted surfaces.

The program is available to commercial businesses along two of the city's main thoroughfares: Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The eligible area along Main Street extends from McDaniel College to the Sheetz convenience store at Washington Road and along Pennsylvania Avenue from Green Street to Winters Lane.

City officials have no inkling of how many business might apply for the money. But the spectrum of private enterprises excluded from the program runs from liquor stores and gun shops to churches and nursing homes.

Applicants have to provide a description of what the project entails and receive the blessing of the Maryland Historical Trust, which will make sure any new facade fits into Westminster's preservation efforts. Historic-tax incentives also may be available to qualifying applicants.

One applicant is nearing the end of the approval process for the facade money, and seven others have received forms, city officials said.

"It's a great marriage between the oldest business in Westminster and the city," said first applicant Lori Graham, a third-generation resident and owner of Dutterer's Florist, which sits in the middle of the Pennsylvania Avenue zone. "I not only want to improve the city, but my neighborhood."

The owner of the 83-year-old business once asked the city whether commercial properties could get access to facade improvement funds that have been offered to private homes in Westminster.

"I told them, there's an old Westminster business that could use a facelift," she said.

And now Graham may have a chance to do that. With city approval, she hopes to remove the front of the 1911 Victorian building and update it, erect a left turret to match the one that exists on the right, add a small porch, steps, double doors and a ramp to make the building handicapped accessible.

City officials said the program will distribute the funds directly to contractors after businesses pay their share and show proof of payment, a state requirement. The only other proviso is that businesses must maintain the updated facades for five years.

Funding will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. With no expiration date for applications, the city will provide money until it runs out, which is fine by Stanley T. Ruchlewicz, the city's economic development specialist.

"The sooner we spend this round and show how successful we are, the better the opportunity to get more funds," he said.

Ruchlewicz is the one who came up with the idea to lobby the state for the funds, through the Community Legacy program, which is administered through the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Westminster received the money as a grant from the state's Neighborhood Business Development Program and from private contributions.

The facade program proved successful in Ruchlewicz's previous economic revamps in Havre de Grace and in Reading, Pa., where he served in the same capacity.

As executive director of the Westminster Town Center, which is in charge of distributing the money, Ruchlewicz wears two hats in this endeavor. One of the Town Center's primary missions as a private nonprofit organization is to implement city revitalization efforts.

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