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Project policy to be revisited
La Grande residents and visitors may notice some significant changes to the city in the next year.
Upgrades to old buildings and even the construction of new ones are in the works.
Some of those changes are coming as a result of the Urban Renewal funding for projects within the district.
The Urban Renewal Agency last month voted to fund 10 projects with Urban Renewal money. Some projects are small with matching funds of only $3,000, while some projects are much larger, receiving upwards of $35,000 or even $75,000.
Urban Renewal District Manager Robert Strope said the program has been running for several years, but this year was different. In previous years when funding was available, they received requests totaling less than the amount of funding allotted for the program. This year, however, after doing a call for projects, the district received 15 applications. The total requested amount was more than $450,000 — far more than the $250,000 in the pot for the program.
Strope called the response “overwhelming,” and members of the Urban Renewal Advisory Commission had a tough task to whittle those projects down.
“Essentially what we put forward to the URAC were the applications we received,” Strope said.
In meetings alone URAC members spent more than five hours going over the projects and their merits, not to mention the time they spent at home with
The URAC first met June 10 to go over the 15 applicants for funding. At that time only $75,000 of funding was available for the program, though there was a hope that the Urban Renewal Agency would re-allocate funding to boost that number. In a three-hour meeting, members successfully ranked projects based on preference criteria laid out in the Urban Renewal Downtown & Urban Renewal District Redevelopment Incentive Program. The four criteria look at whether the project is for a for-profit business, whether the project will create or retain jobs, whether the project addresses only one floor of a building or the entire building and whether the District will get a full return on its investment. A secondary question raised to the URAC was whether or not the project will remove blight.
Two of the 15 projects were moved into the Facade Program during the first meeting, leaving 13 projects for the URAC to rank.
Following the first meeting, the Urban Renewal Agency OK’d moving $200,000 out of contingency to give the Urban Renewal projects more breathing room. With $275,000 now in the pot, the URAC met again, on June 24, and was able to allocate more funding to more projects. At that meeting, they also combined two projects, both for the Liberty Theatre, leaving 12 projects to fund.
Using their ranked list, the URAC recommended the top five projects receive eligible funding at 100 percent. Remaining projects were recommended to be funded at about 87 percent, with the exception of Les Schwab Tire Center and Liberty Theatre, which were funded below that level.
URAC members agreed to recommend that Liberty Theatre receive significantly less than was requested since it is a nonprofit with alternative funding sources and because it has received $75,000 in Urban Renewal funding and is scheduled to get that much more this year. Les Schwab representatives said at the URAC’s June 10 meeting that they would move forward with the project regardless of whether they got these funds, so the URAC felt comfortable with offering them less than what was requested.
Change in policy
The recommendation to fund 11 projects went before the Urban Renewal Agency July 19. To the dismay of some URAC members, the Agency eliminated funding for one project, decreased funding for one and increased funding for several others. Several Agency members also expressed a desire to revisit the program policy, questioning some aspects of the projects.
“Prior to (the last Urban Renewal Agency) meeting, agency members had expressed a desire to revisit the policy,” Strope said.
Community and Economic Development Director Charlie Mitchell and Strope recently took some of the concerns of Agency members and put changes to the policy before the URAC Aug. 12.
Mitchell said he assigned points to the preference criteria in order to weigh them and give the URAC more guidance when they must rank projects, though URAC members at the Aug. 12 meeting said the points should not be used as a hard and fast tool to make
“I think it’s a simple guideline,” Greg Bogard, a URAC member, said. “I think that makes the most sense.”
Other members agreed that if the points were hard and fast, the URAC would not be needed.
Mitchell and Strope also added a preference criteria that addresses blight, a concept that was brought up multiple times during the last round of projects.
“Preference will be given to projects that can demonstrate the mitigation, reduction, or removal of blight,” says a draft of the new policy.
Leaders are also hoping to change one of the preference criteria that none of the applicants in the last round met. It gave preference to projects that had a full return on the investment in five years. The new preference criteria gives preference to projects “with higher ratios of private investment to public funding and expected return of property taxes revenues.”
During the last round, some Agency and URAC members brought up concerns about an HVAC system that an applicant wanted to install. Some questioned whether that was proper use of Urban Renewal funds, since the goal is to primarily address external pieces.
The new draft policy includes language to clarify that “Permanent improvements that have a life span greater than five years that are not considered tenant improvements …or fixtures that cannot easily be removed” is acceptable interior work.
Agency members in their last meeting also expressed a concern that applicants would be able to flip property, so Strope and Mitchell added to the policy language that prohibits the sale of property related to the project within five years. If a sale does take place, the project funding will be considered a loan and the full amount must be reimbursed. The policy addition says liens may be placed on such properties.
“We’ve been putting this in agreements anyway,” Mitchell told the URAC last week, but with the concerns raised, staff decided to include it in the policy itself.
The other biggest changes to the program policy are about the timing of projects.
Previously, projects that have been worked on or even completed have been able to get funding from the Urban Renewal District after the fact if they talked to staff, understood the risk of not getting funding and applied through the traditional means.
In the last round, applicants for Tropical Swirlz received $35,000 in funding from the program even though much of the work was done.
“I know there were people questioning that,” Mitchell said.
The new policy includes language that codifies the position the program has been using.
“Projects may commence prior to funding award, at the applicant’s risk, but only after a written application has been submitted,” the draft policy says, adding that the submission of the application does not bind the Agency.
The policy also adjusts the time that projects should begin — to six months rather than a year.
“We’ve had a couple instances where we’ve granted dollars, reserved those dollars and then the projects didn’t happen,” Strope said.
Strope said changing the deadlines and time frames is important “so everyone is clear on what (they) are.”
The draft policy with changes will go before the Agency for approval at its September meeting.