Village retail grants to do business beyond downtown

? New guidelines would make retail rehab program more small-business friendly.

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By KATHARINE GRAYSON

Once only offered to merchants within Downtown's Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district, village grants that help support renovation and expansion of retail space are now expected to be made available to business owners village-wide.

The village has been studying expansion of the retail rehab grant program for nearly a year. As part of that study, staff members have crafted new guidelines for the program, which would make it easier for businesses to apply for the grants, said Loretta Daly, the village's business services manager.

The village has tentatively budgeted $150,000 for the revised program.

"Making it village-wide is a major improvement. It more equitably supports all business areas," Daly said. "[The new rules] will also compress the amount of time it takes the applicant to go through the process."

"We're trying to be [business] friendly," said Trustee Gus Kosotopulos, the village board's liaison to the Retail Rehab Grant Commission.

Some of those new rules mean that grant-seekers can submit less detailed business plans. For instance, under the old guidelines, prospective business owners had to submit a signed, 5-year lease, as well as detailed drawings for any rehabilitation or expansion project.

Now, only a letter of intent to sign a lease, and more general renderings of a project, would be required. 

Though every project is different, Daly estimates that the application process would be reduced on average from 8-9 weeks to 6-7 weeks. The changes would also give applicants a better sense of how a village contribution will fit into their business plans, though a lease will have to be signed, and building permits secured, before dollars are actually released.

"It allows for an applicant to know what the village contribution is going to be before they make a significant investment," she said.

Grants will also now be offered on a sliding scale, making the new program more small-business-friendly, Daly said.

Previously, the maximum amount an applicant could receive was $15 per square foot. Now, the village would implement a four-tier funding structure, which would give, for instance, an owner of a less than 1,000-square-foot space up to $35 per square foot in support. The amount then diminishes as the total square footage increases. 

Making grants available village-wide would also foster an increase in the diversity of businesses throughout Oak Park.

"If we saw something going into a market already saturated with that type of use, we wanted an incentive tool to get someone to move somewhere else," Daly said.

As with the previous program, applications will be reviewed by a committee, which will forward a recommendation to trustees. The seven-member committee will include representatives from the downtown, Avenue and Madison Street business districts. The remaining four members will be culled from other districts.

A vote to approve the new program and accompanying guidelines was removed from a village board agenda last week, when it was sent back to the Retail Rehab Grant Commission after changes were made, Kostopulos said. The revised program is expected to be voted on at the board's next meeting.

?#34;Drew Carter contributed to this report

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