WOONSOCKET – The Downtown Woonsocket Collaborative is asking the City Council to spend $250,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to help spur activity in the Main Street area by allowing business owners to request funds for building renovations.
The “Downtown Rebound” program would allow new and existing business owners to request up to $25,000 to cover renovation costs. According to a Dec. 7 letter to Council President Daniel Gendron, the program would help modernize Main Street’s historic properties, many of which remain out of compliance with contemporary building and fire codes.
“We hope that you will consider funding this request to help our small business community,” wrote outgoing DWC Executive Director Garrett Mancieri. “They are the ones who are always there for us, and now it is our time to be there for them.”
Mancieri told The Breeze that building renovation costs are one of the main barriers to new businesses moving into the Main Street area. For a small business owner planning to lease a previously vacant space, he said, the cost of bringing it up to code can be more than they can afford.
“No one wants to spend $20,000 on a space that they don’t own. You’re never going to get that money back,” he said.
He laid out the details of the proposed program in the Dec. 7 letter, describing requirements for city approvals and the possible financial benefits to the city in the form of increased property and tangible taxes. The maximum award, he said, would be $25,000 to allow at least 10 businesses to apply for the benefit.
Mancieri also pitched the DWC as the administrator of the program, acknowledging the program could strain City Hall’s already short-staffed departments.
“We know the city has limited resources to dedicate staff and management time for this request, so we would be happy to work in partnership and have representation be a part of the approval and promotion of this program,” he said.
Gendron gave little indication of his thoughts on the proposal during a phone call this week, saying he’s received many good requests for investment in the city. He said he appreciates the effort the organization took in laying out a specific plan but would need to see if there’s any appetite for it moving forward.
“It’s always an option. I wouldn’t want to say that I’ve decided how it’s going to go. The unfortunate thing is this is not an endless pool of money,” he said.
Gendron said the council has not had any meetings to discuss the proposal since receiving the letter and expects to continue discussions with the administration about ARPA spending in the coming months. Most of the suggestions, he said, will likely come from the administration, though councilors have also pitched their own spending ideas, such as when they approved a combined $120,000 for motel vouchers and New Beginnings soup kitchen last month.
Regardless of whether the idea moves forward, Mancieri will not be the one to implement it. The local real estate agent announced last month he’s stepping down from his position as DWC executive director and said he’s proud of what the organization has accomplished over the last six years.
“Now I think it’s time for somebody else to step up and take it in a different direction,” he said.
A former city councilor, he’s indicated he plans to pursue another political run, though he’s not saying yet for which office.
“I’m not making any announcements until I see how the landscape comes. I do anticipate putting my name in for elected office for sure, and we’ll see what opportunities exist in the next year to three years,” he said.
Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt gave the ARPA request a cool reception in an email to The Breeze on Monday, saying the Planning Department already offers assistance to new and expanding businesses. She pointed to a pandemic-era grant program that funneled COVID relief funds to local businesses and said the city has offered new signage and other improvements in the downtown area.
“First and foremost, I am uncertain if DWC would qualify for ARPA funding, and the approach described implies they would become a branch of our Planning Department,” she said, adding that if the city uses ARPA funding to assist small businesses, it would be accomplished through the Planning Department.
Baldelli-Hunt also acknowledged the work of city employees who coordinate with companies to bring business to the downtown area.
“I feel their efforts are minimized at times and others mistakenly take credit for their hard work. The administration appreciates the enthusiasm of volunteers and organizations who bring events to our city, but that is not what ultimately fills our vacancies or creates the sale of a building,” she said.
She pointed to the development of the Bernon Mills as well as movement on the Hospital Trust Building, Longley Building and Commercial Block as examples of projects handled through the administration.
“We must separate the difference between the work done by city/government employees and Realtors,” she added. “Realtors bring clients to fill a vacant storefront and earn a commission for doing so.”