Although it did not garner unanimous support, the Great Bend City Council Tuesday night approved spending half of the city’s $2,271,654.71 in American Rescue Plan Act funds for a downtown rehabilitation project to assist in sprinkler system installation and other improvements to downtown lofts.
The city will receive two equal ARPA installments, with the first direct payment coming by July 31. The second half will come about a year later.
Great Bend Economic Development Inc. President Sara Hayden proposed using half of those funds to reimburse owners of multi-story buildings in the downtown district on an application basis. The council action granted this up to $1 million with half coming from each of the ARPA payments.
“There are 18 buildings that want to move forward with this,” Hayden said.
Ward 1 Councilwoman Lindsey Krom-Craven she has had heard from several constituents. “In general, people don’t like it,” she said.
“There is a lot of concern if this is a good use of the money,” she said. Opponents see this as a handout for housing that won’t be affordable for most residents.
“I completely understand the concern,” Hayden said. But, from an economic development standpoint, she sees this as a way to finish off unused downtown space with homes and businesses generating sales and property taxes, and make a name for Great Bend as a progressive community.
More importantly, “this enables us to move forward with other projects,” she said. “Before, people were wondering is it worth investing in Great Bend. Is it worth taking a risk on Great Bend.”
In her eyes this is the city’s way of taking that risk, and inviting others to as well.
Ward 4 Councilman Jr. Welsch backed the measure, saying he’s heard positive feedback. “I’ve had quite a few people say the opposite. They think we need to try something different,” instead of the same thing over and over again.
“This is a chance to make something of Great Bend,” Welsch said. “We can’t keep doing he same old, same old. I’m all for it.”
There may be a chance for the downtown buildings, or downtown as a whole, to receive historical designations. Hayden said this could help owners receive tax credit to make improvements.
Ward 3 Councilman Davis Jimenez wanted more details on other possible uses for the ARPA money. He was uncomfortable voting for this until he had that information.
There have also been questions about whether or not this qualifies under ARPA, which is a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 11. City Administrator Kendal Francis initially questioned the use of the funds for this endeavor, but after digging into the act’s details, he thinks it will work.
The city can claim the funds as reimbursement for pandemic expenses like wage costs or lost revenue. But once the money is received and in the general fund, reporting requirements cease and the it can be used for any government service.
“Economic development is a government service,” he said.
However, he still has other wish-list items for the money. He rattled off $500,000 for the automated water meter system, $15,000 each for Heizer Park and Arkansas River recreational improvements, and $70,000 each for storm water management and items on the city’s strategic plan.
Welsch made the motion to approve the proposal, which passed 6-2. Krom-Craven and Jimenez were the no votes.
Under the plan, the city would establish a defined area in the downtown corridor in which there would be a cost-sharing program. It calls for reimbursing 50% of the cost upon proof of sprinkler installation and other stipulations, and then structuring the other 50% of the cost as a forgivable loan.
That loan would be forgiven if the valuation increased enough over a specified time period. The recommendation would be 15 years for commercial space and 20 years for residential.
It’s estimated that fire sprinklers would cost around $3.50 a square foot per floor. So a two-story building with a basement would cost around $31,725
With this, the city is able to address two obstacles that it currently faces, Hayden said. First is the shortage in mid- to upper-income housing and the second is the economic shift with businesses looking at rural communities for expansion, bringing families to these rural communities.
Building owners have to spend at least $50,000 on each structure they seek funding for, Hayden said.
The ARPA money has to be spent by Dec. 31 of 2024.