City grants help Clearwater businesses spruce up storefronts

On a weekday afternoon, the 400 block of Cleveland Street is alive with the kind of activity Clearwater city officials have long yearned to see in their downtown.

A late lunch crowd fills the tables in the street turned outdoor seating area. A group of friends are having drinks together in the bar at Clear Sky on Cleveland. On the corner, customers stream in and out of Grindhouse Coffee sipping on their iced coffees and lattes.
 
But to the east, along the 500 block of Cleveland Street, the foot traffic tails off considerably and the vacant storefronts crop up.

While activity downtown has picked up over the last few years, particularly along the 400 block of Cleveland with its restaurants, and more businesses on the way, Clearwater officials continue to develop policy tools to address the persistent issue of vacant storefronts in the city core.

In May, the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency launched a trio of business assistance grant programs that have more than $1.5 million in funding available over the next two years to property owners and tenants within the boundaries of the CRA district to help pay for improvements to ground floor commercial space.

The funding initiatives -- a commercial beautification grant to spruce up the exterior of buildings, a whitebox program to get vacant commercial space ready for a new use and a vacancy reduction grant for more large-scale renovation work on vacant storefronts -- are aimed at attracting more foot traffic and business activity to downtown area, improving the area’s appearance, and filling empty storefronts.
 
So far, the city has approved grant applications for five sites through the programs and has two additional applications pending. 

Belle Burnell, with a design studio firm named Michelle Workman Interiors, is working with a skin care company that has a grant to help with the renovation and redesign of a former IRA office at 609 Court St.

InfiniteAloe, which has products carried at Costco and leading trade shows, is relocating from Los Angeles and will use $50,000 from a CRA “whitebox” grant to go toward a full facade redo and a significant interior renovation to create a retail showroom floor and a skin care treatment room. The CRA grant money will help with improvements to the building exterior, such as new doors, larger windows, a fresh paint job and an upgrade to the ramp. The results, Burnell says, will improve curb appeal and contribute to the overall look of downtown.

“The grant is a huge help,” Burnell says. “It allows more attention to the facade. It’s definitely not cheap to redo the whole facade of a building. I definitely think it’s cool the city of Clearwater is going in this direction and looking to help businesses upgrade downtown.”

“Perfect for Me”

Tim B. Humes owns the Papa John's Pizza franchise on Missouri Avenue and Court Street, in the CRA district and along the drive east into downtown. Humes has more than 30 years experience in the industry as a franchise owner and in corporate roles with Papa John's and Domino's. As carry-out business has picked up in recent years, Humes decided that his parking lot, signage, lighting and awning were in need of repair and improvement. 

Through his contacts with AMPLIFY Clearwater, the business organization formed by the merger of the Clearwater Beach and Clearwater chambers of commerce, Humes found out about the new CRA commercial beautification grant that will provide assistance to existing businesses doing exterior upgrades. He has an agreement in place for a $12,500 grant from the program.

"I'm a longtime tenant, one of the few national franchises there, and I am looking at a total facelift to take it back to its original look," Humes says. "The timing of the grant is perfect for me. It's money I was going to have to invest so anything is helpful. I think it's great that the city has this."

Along the 400 block of Cleveland Street, Green Culture, a  plant-based cafe and juice bar located in Trinity, has an agreement for a $50,000 CRA grant to go toward renovating the storefront between Tequila’s Mexican Grill and Cantina and Clear Sky On Cleveland for a Clearwater location.
 
On the 800 block of Court Street, South Beaches Center, a massage and skin care business, has a commercial beautification grant  to go toward exterior work like painting, new awning, and parking lot resurfacing.

Meanwhile, along the 500 block of Cleveland Street, downtown investor Daniel Ikajevs has plans for six breweries, including an incubator, and a restaurant in vacant storefronts.

The City Council, in their role as the CRA board, approved a $250,000 grant from the largest of the new business assistance initiatives, the vacancy reduction grant program, to go toward the extensive renovation work needed to get buildings at  527 and 531 Cleveland in usable condition for a business. That grant agreement will be finalized when the project has a building permit.
 
Ikajevs also sought an additional $250,000 from a second part of that vacancy reduction grant set aside for “catalytic” businesses that are destinations capable of accelerating downtown revitalization. The City Council held off on that approval because the project did not yet have agreements in place with any tenants.

At that time, Mayor Frank Hibbard said some business needs to come in to carry the resurgence and activity along the 400 block to  the 500 block.

“The 400 block on Cleveland Street is working,” Hibbard said. “The 500 block is sadly lagging behind and we need a catalyst to help the 500 block.''

Making changes based on feedback

The CRA board established the new grant programs in the spring of 2021. Before that, CRA staff spent 18 months talking with downtown business and property owners and city leaders to craft the programs.

CRA Director Amanda Thompson gives some background on how the new programs take a different approach than prior initiatives.

Thompson says when she arrived in 2018, the city had an anchor tenant incentive program offering up to $250,000 to draw in a single, attention-grabbing business, such as a famous restaurant, that could transform downtown. There were no takers that qualified.

The Clearwater CRA then launched a food and drink grant program focused on attracting restaurants and nightlife establishments. That program helped spur $3.9 million in investment - $2.7 million from the private sector and $1.2 million from the CRA. 

Nine businesses received grant funding, including Clear Sky Beachside Cafe on Cleveland, Tequila’s Mexican Grill & Cantina, Roxy’s Bistro, BlackBrick Tavern & Kitchen, which are all along the now bustling 400 block of Cleveland Street.
 
Thompson says talks with the business community while crafting the new grant programs showed that the cost of renovation and difficulty securing financing based on the lease rates in the downtown market were holding back projects and keeping storefronts vacant. There was also a push to expand the focus beyond food and beverage establishments, provide financial assistance to smaller projects and put a program in place to help current businesses spruce up their exterior, making downtown look better to potential investors and visitors.
 
Overall, the goal of the programs is to reduce vacancies in the CRA by 10 percent.

Different grants for different projects

The back-and-forth discussions with the business community and city leaders resulted in three different-sized grant programs for different-sized projects.
  
“I think of it as small, medium and large,” Thompson says. 

Here are details on each:
  • Commercial Beautification Grant: This funding goes toward small-scale exterior beautification and improvement projects such as windows, doors, painting, signage, lighting, roofing, and parking lot and driveway repairs and striping. The total for each project is $25,000, with $12,500 coming from the CRA grant and $12,500 from the business owner or tenant. Existing businesses are eligible for the program. Eligible Projects that cost $5,000 or less may receive full funding from the CRA program; no match required.
  • Whitebox Grant Program: A $100,000 grant program -- $50,000 from the CRA grant, $50,000 from the property owner or business tenant- to go toward renovations, repairs and improvements to get older, vacant buildings ready to occupy. The grant is dubbed “whitebox” because the building interior is seen as a blank canvas or open space that can be reconfigured for a new use. Eligible projects that cost $25,000 or less can receive 100 percent funding from the CRA, with no required march.
  • Vacancy Reduction Grant Program: The largest of the grant programs will prove $250,000 in CRA funds - along with a $250,000  property owner or tenant match, to go toward exterior and interior work on vacant ground floor commercial space that needs significant work. A second part of the grant will provide an additional $250,000 in grant funding, again with a $250,000 match, for a "catalytic" use - a destination business not found elsewhere downtown. The second half of the grant could go toward the purchase of specialized equipment for that type of business.
Building on momentum

CRA Business Assistance Administrator Howard Smith says the city is spreading the word through contractors, real estate agents, and other stakeholders that the grant programs are funded and available for businesses and property owners. City officials are hopeful the funding assistance will help carry on the momentum downtown has built attracting businesses to vacant storefronts and properties.
 
A CRA update counts a dozen businesses that have either opened recently or are soon to open in the downtown area, many along the Cleveland Street corridor. They include restaurants like De Lukas Restaurant & Bar and Jamaica Vybz Grille, exercise businesses such as Pilates By Christine and Race Athletics gym, a media company, Cleveland Street Studios, and specialty shops such as The Scrummy Sweets Co. candy shop.
 
The city has also sold a CRA-owned property with a vacant warehouse at 115 S. Martin Luther King Ave. for $650,000 to Tampa firm Equity LLC for future redevelopment. The $14.8 million development plan for that property includes two established companies -- co-working space COhatch and brewery and restaurant North High Brewery, along with 35 residential apartments

Creating a streamlined process

As CRA officials spread the word about the new grant programs, Smith, the business assistance administrator, points out the streamlined application process. A two-page application is available online and applicants typically receive an answer within two weeks, The process also protects taxpayer money. Applicants have to submit two bids to verify costs and the grants fund improvements to the property that will remain whether or not the business stays.  The grants are also only paid out as reimbursement after the tenant or property owner submits eligible expenses.

For more information on the programs and the Clearwater CRA, please follow this link: Clearwater Community Redevelopment Agency.
 

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. Chris spent more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys our local music scene, great weather, and Florida's wealth of outdoor festivals.