Help may soon be on the way to give downtown storefronts a facelift. Council heard about a plan at their May 23 meeting from Leonard Hawkins as he presented the report that he created for the Downtown Revitalization Committee in November and December 2005.
Hawkins' presentation focused on one particular aspect of the study, façade improvement. He related that during the project, he frequently heard the comment that St. Marys' downtown "looked tired." There are approximately 30 buildings in the core that already have a heritage designation and this has lead to the investigation into creating a Heritage Conservation District.
Hawkins reported that at a meeting on January 17 with 45 people in attendance (mainly merchants and property owners) 90 per cent supported the idea. At the same meeting, it came to light that 79 per cent said they needed financial assistance to help improve the façade of their building.
Hawkins' report outlined that one way for this to happen is through the Ontario Heritage Tax relief program, where owners can get up to 40 per cent of project costs back through a tax rebate. Unfortunately, getting involved requires having a Heritage Conservation District already established and this process could take some time.
This means the program probably can not happen in 2006, which has been the goal all along. Hawkins suggested an interim solution that council could provide in the meantime. This plan would involve the town reimbursing 30 per cent of an approved property owner's costs for façade improvements, up to a maximum of $3,000 per application.
The municipality would need to provide 100 per cent funding, but Hawkins estimated that only five or six property owners would get involved immediately, costing an estimated $20,000. A review panel would be established, with membership coming from the BIA, Downtown Revitalization Committee, Heritage St. Marys and possibly others.
Hawkins related a number of benefits to moving ahead now instead of waiting for the Ontario Heritage Tax Relief Program, including the fact that it will keep buildings from deteriorating even further. "Morale would deteriorate" if the program doesn't start in 2006, Hawkins says, and he feels that the town could learn from the new program before the full-fledged one starts in 2007.
Not only do property owners need help with financial resources, they need help with the administrative work involved and coordination of projects. "We're not on the leading edge of this," pointed out Coun. Bill Osborne, "it's been around for a long time." He pointed to Stratford as one example and added that they access a number of different programs to encourage façade improvement.
He also wanted to dispel the notion that the program will be costly, noting other municipalities pay $8,000 to $10,000 per year. Hawkins agreed and he told council that he had looked at all of the 30 designated properties and that only two needed extensive work. "It's not major," he suggested, pointing to the most common improvements being painting, eavestrough work as well as sign and window repair. "$10,000 will do quite a lot of that type of work," Hawkins said, adding that "There are people out there now who are ready to go, but if we wait too long it will be too late in the season."
The suggestion is to make the basic downtown core the priority in the first year and as Osborne explains, it is more effective "to get five or so as close together as possible. Once this gets started," added Osborne about the improvements, "it's contagious."
Council accepted the report and the Downtown Revitalization Committee will get to work on coming up with a process to make the façade improvement process happen as quickly as possible. Coun. Gerry Teahen encouraged council "to put timelines on these things," and noted that the money was included in the 2006 budget.