By Cherise Kaechele

The Observer

The La Grande City Council, meeting as the Urban Renewal Agency, continued discussions of its 2019 goals at Wednesday night’s meeting.

Though the agency had four pages of priorities to discuss, the main underlying issue was looking at the annual Call for Projects and seeing if there is a better way to generate economic development in the Urban Renewal District.

The Call for Projects is a URA program in which business owners apply for grants and the URA decides what’s worth investing in. The frustration, according to URA member Nicole Howard, who has been vocal about the program’s shortcomings previously, is the URA is not equipped to adequately evaluate the potential success of the proposed projects.

“I am deeply uncomfortable with the Call for Projects, because we’re just guessing,” Howard said to the agency on Wednesday. “We’re not business majors.”

Each year, the agency has approximately $200,000 to invest in the applicants’ businesses. Projects like the Landing Hotel, Hines Meat Company and the renovation of the Imperial/IOOF building have received funds in the past. However, nearly every year, there are projects that receive funding but do not follow through with their project. In that case, the funding goes back into the URA pot.

Generally, the maximum amount of money a project can receive is $75,000 and the minimum grant is $5,000.

Since the Calls for Projects program began in 2010, aspects of the process have been scrutinized nearly every year, including its rating system and the uncertainty of whether to give all the applicants a little bit of money or only the few most promising businesses more funds. The program has been refined throughout the years, but on Wednesday the agency members — who inherited the positions when they joined the city council — said the URA needs to develop a better system.

One of the main concepts the agency worked on was creating categories for businesses to apply for that will focus on a specific area. For example, a set amount of funding would be put aside for manufacturing businesses that would move into the Business and Technology Park. Another category could be businesses that want to work on one of the blighted buildings in town.

Agency Manager Robert Strope said there are not a lot of people interested in the business park. Though there is money for business owners to apply for, the requirements for being eligible for the funding are strict, and the application process can deter applicants.

Agency Member Jim Whitbeck agreed the CFP is not an ideal program and needs restructuring.

The agency is not equipped to be a financial institution, he said, but the program “is the difference between someone having food on their table and not.” It’s a valuable resource for business owners, but there are flaws.

Agency Member Justin Rock said getting rid of the CFP program would mean there isn’t anything to show for the URA. Rock stressed any drastic change to the program should be more thought out than what they were able to do at the retreat.

See the complete story in Friday's Observer