ST. PETE BEACH — Later this month businesses will be able to apply for a loan or grant awarded by the City of St. Pete Beach and the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce Business Site Improvement Program, enabling them to spruce up their property or comply with new city codes.

City Manager Alex Rey noted during the budget process the city agreed to allocate $50,000 for the program. Funds will not be given to businesses up front, but will be on a reimbursement basis.

Businesses seeking to make site improvements to meet code requirements may apply for a four-year interest free loan up to $7,500, amounting to 50% of the total project cost.

Grants will be issued to businesses seeking to make site improvements in excess of code requirements, such as beautification projects that improve the surrounding area. They can receive a grant for up to 50% of the total project cost up to $7,500.

Rey said he envisions older businesses will apply for the loans to come into compliance will new city codes, such as the rule now requiring businesses to install grease and oil traps. It’s been hard for some smaller business to come up with thousands of dollars to install these containers, he explained.

The city doesn’t want the oil and grease to get dumped into the sewer system, so this program will enable some businesses to install the proper equipment. They can also receive assistance to come into compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

The grant program can help owners of older business to spruce up their property with items such as outdoor art, landscaping, painting, fencing and garbage screening that can improve the aesthetic look of their property.

Commissioner Mark Grill said several residents have asked why the city is using taxpayer funds to help businesses. He said some have asked, ‘“as a resident I don’t get funds to help meet code requirements, so why are we doing this for businesses?’”

Grill said he can understand the city helping a business with a loan to come up to code, but “I don’t see the need for the grants, because what differentiates an established business from their competitors?”

Rey said a big part of economic development — and sometimes the forgotten part of economic development — is business retention. “Everybody thinks we are going to attract new business, but you can attract as many as you want, if you are losing them on the other side, then you’re not really getting farther ahead,” Rey said. “The grant gives the city the ability to help a very small business, who has been in the city for several years, to improve their appearance. It will make the business more sustainable.”

The city manager said as part of a separate project, the city is forming a volunteer group to help residents who cannot care for their own property, such as the elderly or disabled.

“We’re trying to make the city look better, so we’re working on different angles, not just the businesses,” Rey said.

Mayor Al Johnson said in his opinion, the grant piece “wasn’t to help the businesses be more successful, it was to beautify our city.”

In a report to the City Commission, Chief Operating Officer Jennifer McMahon said “strong local businesses help create a strong local community. With its new Business Site Improvement Program, the City of St. Pete Beach will encourage private investment in local businesses to improve commercial areas.

“This program will help local businesses meet and exceed local codes,” she said. “Local businesses may apply for the new Business Site Improvement Program beginning later this month. The city will provide $50,000 to the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce to oversee the grant program.”

In order to be eligible, businesses must be physically located within a commercial zone, and be current with their St. Pete Beach Business Tax Receipt and State of Florida Annual Report. Businesses also must be current with their property taxes.

For loans, businesses must allow the city to perform a credit check and provide additional financial information upon request.

For grants, which can be applied for once a year, businesses must have no outstanding code citations. The city will not consider applications from businesses in the repayment process of a previous award and will give preference to businesses who have not received prior awards.

Eligible businesses must have less than 50 employees.

Businesses should apply through the city’s website. The city will consider applications on a rolling basis beginning February 15.

City commissioners unanimously approved joining with the Tampa Bay Beaches chamber to establish the loan and grant program.

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