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Escanaba DDA sets goals for year

ESCANABA — Now that the dust has settled from New Year’s festivities and 2020 is in full swing, the Escanaba Downtown Development Authority is busy setting goals and preparing for projects.

Historically, one of the goals of the DDA has been to plan and host meaningful events that draw residents to the downtown. However, the authority has begun to shift away from planning new events to supporting existing events — such as hosting the city’s annual Christmas tree lighting — so funds can be used for brick and mortar projects.

“If we have a fun event and everyone has a fun time and we cook and do all that stuff, well, the reality is a year from now most people won’t remember that we even did it,” said DDA Executive Director Ed Legault. “Whereas if we build the marketplace or we do a facade project or we work to enhance the parking lots or something, there’s tangible stuff that people will be able to see for a long time.”

A major priority for the DDA in 2020 is to prepare for the launch of an entirely new system for facade grants in the city. In the past, the DDA would pay for architects to develop the plans for facade improvements and those plans would then be used by that business to apply for federal Community Development Block Grant funding through the state.

Allowing an avenue for businesses to access CDBG funds has been useful for large-scale projects, but it is impractical for many smaller projects that would struggle to meet the

­stringent requirements for federal funding.

Under the new system, the DDA will request funds from the state and contribute a set percentage of that request in funds to create a pool for facade grants. Businesses will then be able to apply to the DDA for access to the pool for projects that are strictly limited to the fronts of buildings.

New rules for the system are still being developed by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which co-manages CDBG dispersals with the Michigan Strategic Fund. However, according to Legault, the grant amounts would be capped and businesses would need to meet certain guidelines to be reimbursed from the fund for their projects.

Despite the smaller grant amounts, Legault believes the new system could result in more facade grants being awarded in the future.

“I think what we’ve seen is we’ve done some larger projects to whole buildings — more holistic — and I think now what you’ll see is we’ll be able to see some smaller projects to strictly the fronts of buildings,” he said.

The DDA will also be working on a few of the properties it manages. One of the major projects this year is to upgrade the kitchen at the marketplace. Despite remaining a seasonal-use facility, the new commercial kitchen will be heated, allowing it to be used for more of the year than the rest of the marketplace.

The project was one of only 20 approved from the 90 applications for funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development. The $105,000 grant for the project requires a 30 percent match, but thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Hannahville Indian Community, the most the DDA would pay for the upgrades is $15,000 — if the project costs the full amount of the grant.

Due to the added costs the DDA would incur by beginning construction during the winter months, the kitchen project has been delayed until spring. However, Legault said the project is slated to be completed in August of this year.

The DDA is also planning to do minor repairs to the marketplace itself, which are largely needed due to vandalism at the site, and to begin resurfacing projects at some of the 11 public parking lots the authority leases from the city.

“I have about half of them that are in major need of repair and paving, and unfortunately I don’t have all the funds to do that all the time,” said Legault, explaining that re-striping of the lots was an annual occurrence, but repaving was not.

Sidewalks are also a concern for the DDA, which is planning to hire seasonal workers to improve and maintain sidewalks in the district this summer. Properties that have recently received a facade grant will be moved to the front of the repair list, if repairs are needed, and the workers will remove weeds from cracks throughout the downtown.

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