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HARLINGEN — When Bill DeBrooke planned to put a new roof on a downtown building, he turned to the city’s Economic Development Corporation for help.
Through the EDC’s new Revitalize Harlingen project, DeBrooke was one of 16 business owners who qualified for the program, which paid out $142,000 in grant money through a $150,000 budget aimed at sprucing up storefronts.
By the end of its first year, the program had helped business owners make a total of $404,730 worth of building repairs, an EDC report shows.
“The program provides financial assistance for improvements that enhance a building’s aesthetics to spur future economic activity,” the report states.
Now, Orlando Campos, the EDC’s new chief executive officer, is expanding the project, offering more businesses grants while boosting the program’s budget to $200,000.
“Wherever they do it, it’s a good idea, because people really need the help today,” DeBrooke, a downtown property owner who launched the area’s revitalization drive more than 30 years ago, said in an interview. “It saved us a little money.”
When the EDC unveiled its program last year, DeBrooke applied for grants matching 50% of businesses’ total project costs, for up to $10,000.
After he hired a contractor to install a new roof at his building at 321 W. Van Buren Ave., an EDC grant reimbursed him for 50% of the $9,800 project cost, he said.
In the downtown district, the new EDC program’s offering grants to qualifying business owners in the area west of the railroad tracks, DeBrooke said.
“It improved the looks of the area,” he said. “If it makes a difference in the presentation of the streetscape, that’s really important. Anyone who participated in the program came out ahead.”
Last week, city commissioners approved Campos’ plan to boost Revitalize Harlingen’s budget from $150,000 to $200,000 while expanding its target zones.
“The purpose was to improve a property’s aesthetics in targeted areas within Harlingen, encourage retention of jobs, maintain and increase property values and stimulate further economy in the downtown area,” Campos told commissioners during a Nov. 1 meeting.
Last year, the EDC launched its program, offering grant money to qualifying businesses in the area along F Street extending north to the downtown area bordering Jackson and Tyler Avenues while including a west-side area stretching from M Street to the railroad tracks, Campos said.
Across much of the city, the program’s growing.
“This past year, the program did start building quite a bit of momentum,” Campos told commissioners. “We’ve already been getting calls from other local businesses within the zone wanting to know when we’re going to be launching the next phase of funding.”
This year, the EDC is expanding the program to offer grants to qualifying businesses in the areas stretching from South Commerce Street to Little Creek Drive, from North Commerce Street to North 77 Sunshine Strip, from North 77 Sunshine Strip between 13th Street and Loop 499 and along the Morgan Boulevard area from East Washington Avenue to Rio Hondo Road, Campos said.
“We believe these are high traffic areas and some of the businesses along these corridors could benefit through enhancement of their buildings to help drive more traffic and ensure the livelihood of those businesses,” he told commissioners.
Meanwhile, officials are changing some of the program’s criteria, focusing on projects whose upgrades help spruce up the target zone’s business districts, he said.
“There were some lessons learned along the process,” Campos said, referring to the program’s first round of grants. “We’re going to make sure we make it clear that proposed projects must be within public view of the street, which is the essence of the program itself.”
Under the program, qualifying business owners could use grant money to fund upgrades to their storefronts’ facades including exterior painting, restoration of architectural details, installation of doors, windows and awnings, landscaping and signage, the EDC’s report states.
This year, the program won’t be offering grants for roof repairs, while officials are requiring business owners hire registered contractors to undertake projects, requesting they start work within 90 days of landing grants, the report states.