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Business grants program in Bradford boosts economic growth

Bradford West Gwillimbury businesses have been awarded $6.2 million in incentives to-date

Kenzington Burger Bar has become a fixture in downtown Bradford West Gwillimbury since moving in two years ago, but the building owner got some help to freshen up the block.

Gerry Lemos, who owns the building at 4 Holland St. W., got $25,000 from BWG’s Downtown Community Improvement Plan (CIP) for façade improvements and to hire The Brick Painters to give the aging structure a new look.

“It allowed us to do what we were hoping to do, especially with the exterior. We wanted to bring back a more classical look,” he said. “The program allowed us to spend a little more. It was great.”

Along with Kenzington, the building now houses Churrasqueira Barcelos and Milanoz Pizzeria.

Lemos is just one of many BWG business owners who have taken advantage of the town’s CIP grants.

Earlier this month, BWG council approved four applications for funding under the program — a total of $242,000 in grants and zero-interest loans that will help revitalize three locations in Bradford’s downtown core.

The CIP programs have been kick-starting development and helping to bring aging building stock up to code since 2012 — all thanks to a change in provincial legislation, and a pro-business stance by BWG council.

It was in 2008 that the Ontario government gave municipalities a new tool for their planning toolkits.

After decades of banning bonussing to attract new development, the province changed the rules and allowed municipalities to designate community improvement plan areas, where incentives such as grants, interest-free loans, and tax deferrals could be used to encourage specific types of development.

In 2012, Bradford West Gwillimbury launched its first two five-year CIP programs, hoping to entice development in the heritage industrial parks that had been stagnating and spur downtown revitalization.

Staff explained that providing a grant rebating the development charges on a new project is not a financial loss.

Development charges can only be collected on new development. There is no money coming in if the land is sitting vacant and undeveloped, and a successful development brings in new capital, jobs and new tax assessment.

It was an a-ha moment for BWG council.

The town wanted to encourage new building and the expansion of existing industries in the Artesian and Reagens industrial parks, and improve the buildings in the downtown core, encouraging new opportunities for housing, redevelopment and economic growth.

“Any CIP program is really designed to address deficiencies,” said Mike Disano, the town’s manager of economic development.

In the downtown CIP area especially, the retail sector had been “hollowed out by the big-box retail,” moving in along Holland Street West.

“The building stock in the area was in such a bad state. Repairs were not being done properly for years, decades,” he said.

The CIP program was broken down into three areas:

  • Program 1 provided grant funding for facades, landscaping and signage.
  • Program 2 for building, restoration and renovation — to retrofit buildings to meet the Ontario building and fire codes and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
  • Program 3 covered the costs of planning fees and building permits, and other programs involved rebating development charges and deferring taxes.

Council set aside an annual amount available for the incentives. Any unallocated funds at the end of the year went into reserves.

The town’s CIP programs were open for business.

But the response was… underwhelming.

A review in 2016 found the application process was confusing, complicated — and the caps on renovation grants, especially in the downtown, were far too low.

Mike Kemp, hired to work with local businesses interested in the CIP programs, calls the original process “tricky.”

He helped recommend changes, streamlining the applications “just so it’s as easy as possible, so we can get that process moving forward as quickly as possible and that investment moving forward as quickly as possible,” while maintaining accountability.

Not only were the industrial and downtown revitalization CIP programs rebooted, tweaked, and extended for another five years, the town added a three-year Seniors Housing CIP Program to encourage the development of retirement and assisted-living residences for seniors.

“We upped the program for renovations” in the downtown — increasing the cap from $25,000 to $50,000, Disano said, noting half of it is a forgivable loan, and half is a 0-per-cent interest loan, to be matched by the applicant.

“We wanted something that would have longevity and improve the overall building stock.”

The façade improvement guidelines were made much more flexible.

In the industrial CIP area, a new program offered grants for renovations, not just additions and expansions.

And there was another key change: rather than limiting applications to building owners, the program was made available to tenants wishing to make leasehold improvements.

“It was outside the box for us,” Disano said. But it worked.

Since 2016, the town has received a flood of applications for its CIP programs, “and we’ve got a bunch in the hopper,” said Kemp.

The seniors housing CIP reached its target of 250 residential units for seniors within the first nine months. It has now been suspended, but applications have been coming in for both the downtown and industrial CIP areas.

Said Kemp: “2017 was the first year we spent more than what council allocated. We’re now spending the annual amount and dipping into the reserve.”

One successful applicant was Evan Gogou, owner of 177 Holland St. E., a standalone building formerly occupied by a fast-food restaurant, which had been vacant for years.

“The grant allowed us to do work on the site that was better than a patch-up,” including new stucco, roof repairs, installation of energy-efficient windows and insulation, Gogou said.

He received just more than $60,000 in CIP grant funding.

“We pulled out all the asphalt and replaced it with new instead of just patching,” he added.

It was not a cheap fix, but it was a necessary one for the new tenant that came into the renovated building: Starbucks.

Streamlining the process and making the programs more flexible were both important — but so was the role played by Kemp.

“I’m visible. I tell people about the program. That’s been invaluable,” he said.

He has held information sessions, networking events, liaised with the Bradford Board of Trade and local businesses, and encouraged businesses to “tell your friends, tell your landlords as well.”

He follows up and attends business grand openings, keeping in touch with successful applicants and measuring the effect of the program by the number of new businesses, new jobs, and services provided to a vibrant community.

“Not only did it beautify this building that was crumbling, it made it possible to get new tenants — tenants that hire employees,” Kemp said. “That shows economic development.”

Kemp has been amassing information on the success and effectiveness of BWG’s CIPs.

“We want to see how much capital we have incented — for every dollar we put in, how many dollars in capital investment?” he said. “You have to demonstrate value to keep a program going.”

A preliminary review suggested for every $1 in CIP incentives, there has been $17 in investment — but it goes beyond capital investment.

“How many jobs? How much assessment did it lead to? How much did the incentive contribute to the development itself?” said Disano, noting the town has developed a new interdepartmental approach to business retention and attraction.

“We’re trying to be more responsive.”

The next CIP program review will take place in 2019, and there may be more changes.

“At the end of the day, CIPs are really to encourage things that wouldn’t happen otherwise,” explained Disano.

“The mid-program review gives us the opportunity to throw out several ideas,” agreed Kemp. These include rural and heritage CIPs.

“In Barrie, they have them for patios,” something to consider in plans to restore Holland St. E., he suggested, although it will be council that sets the priorities.

Kemp continues to be the face of the CIP program, and encourages interested tenants, landowners and business to contact him for details of the programs, and for any business issues.

“Pick my brain. If I don’t have the answer, I can get you in touch with people who have the answers,” he said. “It’s not a one and done. We want people to succeed here. Their success is our success.”

For more information, contact Michael Kemp, the town’s economic development marketing co-ordinator, at [email protected] or 905-775-5366, ext. 1302, or visit the CIP website

What areas are covered by the CIP grants?

The CIP areas are defined by council in bylaws.

The industrial CIP encompasses the “heritage” industrial parks on Reagens and Artesian industrial parkways.

The downtown CIP covers the land on either side of Holland Street, from Professor Day Drive, to Dissette Street, and along Bridge Street to the bridge — with extensions north on Barrie and Dissette streets.

Before the programs were updated in 2016, the town’s office of economic development had received nine CIP applications in total — in 41 months.

After the changes, it received 20 — of which 17 were for the downtown area — in 21 months. The incentives awarded in both CIP areas total $6.2 million to-date, with $4.9 million or 79 per cent coming from rebates of development charges, not tax dollars.

The current CIPs expire in 2021, with decreasing amounts available each year until the programs are phased out, although council can decide at the mid-way review to extend or change the programs.

Miriam King

About the Author: Miriam King

Miriam King is a journalist and photographer with Bradford Today, covering news and events in Bradford West Gwillimbury and Innisfil.
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