Highland Park is giving a facelift to its facelift program.
Councilmembers decided on Monday, Dec. 11, to move forward with proposed changes to bulk up and streamline the city’s Small Business Facade Improvement Program, a grant initiative “established in 2002 to incentivize property owners and local businesses to improve the look and functionality of their property, place of business, and community,” according to City documents.
The council supported bumping the grant limit from $5,000 to $20,000 per year, a sum approved businesses must match; expanding the program to enable more businesses to apply; and allowing improvements to exterior visible from the right-of-way, not just right-of-way frontage.
Language amendments include specifying that the business must generate sales tax, striking the “for-profit” language from the qualifications, and allowing only one funding request for a specific type of improvement in a building within a five-year period.
The item passed 5-2 with Councilmembers Annette Lidewar and Kim Stone in dissent.
The City has $100,000 budgeted for the program in 2024.
After debate, councilmembers disagreed on whether to limit funding per business. Councilmember Tony Blumberg did not find it necessary, saying that councilmembers can always change limits of the program after a couple of years if needed.
“Somebody who is coming back and saying ‘we want to be a part of this program, we’d like to have the city assist us with our investment in staying on this piece of property,’” Blumberg said. “So, I’m not eager to limit that. Businesses that keep coming back and saying ‘we want to do more, we want to do more,’ those are businesses that are likely to be contributing to our community and to our downtown.”
Lidawer and Stone supported the enforcement of limits.
They discussed limiting the program in terms of the amount of each funding allocation as well as the amount of grant applications a business can submit, citing constraints on the City’s budget.
“I do think there needs to be a limit because there are a lot of businesses in this community. We want to include more and more businesses. If we’re talking about $20,000 per grant per year, we’re really looking at potentially only five that we can help,” Lidawer said. “I would hate to have the same five come every year for a five-year period. So that’s why I think it’s essential to limit it to either the $40,000 or the $60,000 [per business].”
While the council seemed to support expanding the “small business” language in the grant application, Stone remained concerned about supporting the truly small businesses, as the program was originally intended to do.
She also supported limits because the city only allocates a certain amount of money in their budget for the program and she wants to accommodate as many businesses as possible.
“I would hate for a few large businesses to come in early in the year, get these grants and then other businesses who might have been planning to do something and counting on one of these grants, but doing it later in the year, is out of luck,” Stone said. “So for that reason, I’d like a limit, and I’m good with having the $40,000 or the $60,000 over the five years.”
Councilmember Jeff Hoobler was against the funding limitations but wanted to collect data, tracking application numbers in the first year of the program to see if the program is overwhelmed with applicants.
“I think the trial basis is fine and just revisit in two or three years and see if it is a problem,” Hoobler said. “And at that point, we can stop it.”
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Rosie Newmark is a 2023 Record intern and an incoming senior studying journalism and history at Northwestern University. Rosie has written for multiple campus publications in addition to the Hyde Park Herald and American Libraries Magazine.