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Council advances 5 biz grant requests

Michelle Williams.jpg

Michelle Williams, of Williams Holdings.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Monday, October 8, 2018

Elizabeth City officials have advanced five entrepreneurs’ requests' for about $84,000 in city grants and released new details about the kinds of businesses they’re planning to open.

City Council voted unanimously last week to hold public hearings on six applications — two from the same entrepreneur —for funding from the city’s Business Improvement Grant program. Hearings are set for the council's next meeting on Oct. 22. The public hearings must be held before the city can award any grants.

The BIG Program spends public dollars to help repair commercial buildings, with the goals of preventing blight and attracting new businesses.

Council's actions also appeared to accept city staff's decisions to disqualify two applications, City Manager Rich Olson and Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc. Executive Director Deborah Malenfant explained at council's finance committee meeting last week.

City staff said they disqualified a request from the Connect Center for Wellness for $20,000 toward a new therapy center at 402 S. Water Street because its application lacked required information. They also disqualified a roughly $2,600 request for flooring at 605 E. Main Street, saying it didn’t score high enough on the BIG program’s rubric to merit funding.

The applications council agreed to advance to public hearings, and the latest details on those projects include:

* Michelle Williams’ requests for $20,000 for 615 E. Main Street, the former Pure Oil station, and $12,166 for 105 S. Water Street, the former Chocolate House and Cupcakery building. Williams, of Williams Holdings, is proposing interior and exterior fixes to both buildings for potential retail or “light restaurant” use, Malenfant said. Suggested ideas so far include an ice cream shop or even a small grocery store, she added.

* William Raucci’s request for $20,000 for 507 E. Main Street, the former Sidney’s Bistro in the Virginia Dare Arcade. Raucci, of Carolina Growth Partners, is renovating the former restaurant into a pizza-by-the-slice, gelato, and event space, city staff report. Notably, Olson praised Raucci's application as the most thorough the city's ever gotten for the BIG program.

* The Connect Center for Wellness’ request for $12,050 for 303 E. Main Street. The center has proposed renovating the former dentist's office for office space in support of its application for 402 S. Water Street.

* Wadeea Alzawquari’s request for $10,000 for 511-513 Ehringhaus Street. Alzawquari, of E-City Plaza LLC, is proposing to spend $560,000 to renovate the former Ace Hardware building for various commercial tenants. He has letters of intent from a seafood market and a mobile phone store to locate in the building, city staff reported.

* Kevin Stroud and Eric Rainwater’s request for $10,000 for 700 N. Hughes Boulevard. Stroud and Rainwater have proposed restoring the former S&R Market into a pawn shop and retail space.

Combined, the applicants propose creating 16 full-time jobs, with Raucci also proposing to create nine part-time jobs for his pizzeria-ice cream parlor at 507 E. Main Street. Given Williams hasn’t secured tenants yet, city memos didn’t list how many jobs her project would create.

If all the grants are awarded, they would cost $84,216, or more than the $80,000 the city budgeted for this year's BIG program. Olson reported the city has BIG funds left over from last year to cover the overage.

Though moving the grants forward, Mayor Bettie Parker and Councilor Johnnie Walton raised some questions and concerns about the grants during the finance committee.

Parker asked if city staff considered whether grant applicants are proposing viable businesses.

Olson and Malenfant said no. They explained the program doesn't require property owners to have a tenant; sometimes a building must be fixed before any business can use it, Malenfant said.

Walton also raised concerns about the city disbursing multiple grants to one applicant, alluding to Williams. He asked if additional businesses had asked about grants after last month's application deadline. Malenfant said only one had.

At last week’s City Council meeting, Walton also noted some applicants didn't yet have permits needed to start work on their properties. He said the city should consider requirements to ensure future applicants don't win grants on projects they're not ready to build; that could deny funding to other potential businesses.

Olson suggested the city could require work to start within a few months of awarding a grant.

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