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Breathing new life into local businesses and Main Street Community looks to Bethlehem for ideas on growth, improvements

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    Contributed photo Liz Staubach, economic development coordinator for the town of Bethlehem, discusses opportunities for micro-enterprise grants and other enhancements to boost local businesses and neighborhoods in Ravena and Coeymans.
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    Contributed photo The community turned out to hear ideas for ways to spur growth on Main Street.
June 13, 2018 12:01 am Updated: June 13, 2018 12:01 am

RAVENA — Like many small communities, for years the village of Ravena has been looking at ways to improve and revitalize the village’s Main Street corridor.

Elected officials and business leaders are now looking at neighboring Bethlehem to see what worked there, and if those ideas can be replicated or adapted for Ravena.

The RCS Community Business Association recently held a mixer at the Halfway House on Main Street with local business leaders and officials to discuss the opportunities posed by state programs that seek to help build small businesses and revitalize business corridors.

To do that, they looked to Bethlehem, where micro-enterprise grants and a recently completed major streetscape project have breathed life into existing businesses.

Liz Staubach, Bethlehem’s economic development coordinator, spoke at the organization’s June meeting to explain how the micro-enterprise grant program works in Bethlehem, and how a similar program might be brought to Ravena and Coeymans.

“In 2014, the town applied through the Office of Homes and Community Renewal for an initial grant award of $200,000 to provide grants to micro-enterprises in the town,” Staubach explained. “The way this program works is that the town fills out an application that basically says to the state, “This is the program we want to run, give me $200,000 and we will run it in our town.’ We have done that twice successfully, so we received $400,000 in 2014, and in 2016 we received another $200,000.”

That money is then awarded to small local businesses to make improvements and expand. The business fills out an application and files it with a 6-member town committee charged with reviewing grant applications.

“There have been some businesses that have come to us and we thought the business was awesome, but they need help. They need guidance,” Staubach said.

When that happens, the committee lends a helping hand to come up with a solid plan and application.

So far, nine businesses received awards in 2014, and another 10 received money in 2016.

There are “strings attached” to the grants, however, Staubach pointed out.

Each business owner that is awarded a grant through the program is required to attend an entrepreneurial training class given at Bethlehem Town Hall by the Community Loan Fund of the Capital Region. The grant pays for the class, so the money doesn’t come out of the business owner’s pocket.

“The class is to ensure the success of the business,” Staubach said. “A lot of these businesses are start ups and we want to make sure they don’t fall into the classic traps that doom a new business.”

Another component of the grant is that it is a 90-10 match, so, for instance, for every $100 the business spends of its own money, they will receive $90 from the grant program.

Job creation is another requirement for all businesses that receive the micro-enterprise grant.

“There is a job creation component to this,” Staubach pointed out. “Every business that receives grant funds either needs to create a job that is made available to or taken by a person of low to moderate income, or, the business owner themselves has to be low to moderate income.”

If the business accepts the grant but does not meet the requirements, then it is the town’s responsibility to repay the state for the grant.

“So there is risk attached to this. That’s why there is the grant committee,” she said.

Of the 19 businesses on Delaware Avenue that received grants through the micro-enterprise program, grants have been in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, and some have used the money to purchase things like furniture or equipment. Working capital is also eligible for the program funds, but so far no Delaware Avenue businesses have used the money for that.

Participating businesses have ranged from beauty salons to pet-related businesses.

Several of the businesses that have benefited are located along the recently completed Delaware Avenue streetscape project, a $3.1 million project that made enhancements from Adams Street to Elsmere Avenue.

Enhancements have included things like new sidewalks, parking, crosswalks, street trees and new plantings.

“It took a really nice Main Street corridor and enhanced it,” Staubach said. “It stepped it up a notch. There are now delineated crosswalks, there are excellent parking areas, the sidewalks are beautiful.”

The streetscape project came with a $3.1 million price tag. The town ponied up $1.9 million, while the state’s Department of Transportation contributed the remaining $1.2 million.

“It really took Delaware Avenue up to the next level,” she continued.

The project was overseen by the Delaware Avenue Improvement Group, Staubach told the audience, which was comprised of business owners, community leaders and residents. The group worked with the town to make the streetscape project a reality.

The group also implemented a business-to-business program in which Delaware Avenue businesses offer discounts to other businesses in the Delaware Avenue corridor to improve their properties.

Asked how Ravena could implement a similar micro-enterprise program, Staubach said that if work like grant writing and overseeing the project can’t be done in-house by current employees, the village could look into hiring a consultant. That would likely be one of the first steps in bringing such a grant program to fruition.

Village Trustee Nancy Warner said such a program could be beneficial to Ravena and its Main Street corridor.

“I was very excited about last Thursday’s RCS CBA (Community Business Association) meeting and speaker. After hearing Liz Staubach speak about Main Street revitalization, I felt very motivated and encouraged,” Warner said. “I, along with Trustees [Mary Ellen] Rosato and [Linda] Muller, are hoping to encourage the rest of the Village of Ravena Board to look into possibly hiring a part-time economic development person to assist us with bringing life back into our village.”

George McHugh, chair of the RCS Community Business Association, said it was his hope the community could move forward on revitalizing the local business areas.

“It was truly inspiring to hear from Liz Staubach, economic development coordinator from the town of Bethlehem, as she spoke of the potential opportunities for economic revitalization of towns and villages in upstate New York,” McHugh said.

“The RCS CBA is hopeful that the Coeymans and Ravena town and village board members will take the momentum gained at this meeting and work together to bring some of these revitalization resources and opportunities to our much needed Main Streets in both Ravena and Coeymans,” McHugh added.