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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Little time to apply, so councilors suspicious

As published in the Record Journal Thursday September 13, 2012

By Laurie Rich Salerno
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2235

WALLINGFORD - At the center of the Town Council’s current debate on rehabbing the parking lot behind Simpson Court is a state grant — town officials said they acted on it quickly once they learned of its availability, but some councilors believe it could have been looked into earlier.

Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. sent a letter to the Town Council last week asking it to allow the town to apply for a $500,000 state grant to repair and upgrade the privately owned parking lot behind businesses on Simpson Court. The application is due Sept. 28, and councilors are slated to vote on pursuing the grant at their Sept. 25 meeting.

The town built the lot and has leased it from the businesses for public parking since 1961 for a nominal fee. A plan to upgrade the lot using $500,000 of town money last year was shot down by voters in a November referendum. Under the new plan, the state funds would cover most of the cost, and Simpson Court commercial property owners would pay $20,000 for the project and be reimbursed half, while Holy Trinity School, which abuts the lot to the west, would pay $10,000 and receive no reimbursement.

The grant in question is part of a newly established Main Street Investment Fund. The fund was created as part of a state legislative business incentive package called the Act Promoting Economic Growth and Job Creation in the State, and was signed into law in late 2011. The fund is expected to provide $5 million in municipal and private business grants in fiscal year 2012-13 and another $5 million in 2013-14. The top amount a grantee can receive is $500,000.

The money is intended to go toward town projects that help improve local commercial centers to attract new businesses and keep the centers attractive to shoppers. Examples of projects include streetscapes, decorative lighting, landscaping and cosmetic and structural building improvements, according to a fact sheet for the program.

“It’s to promote business in town commercial centers — if there are sidewalks that are falling apart or if you have a green that is unmaintained, that is not attractive for businesses to come in and expand,” said Dimple Desai, community development director for the Office of Policy and Management. Desai administers the fund.

This month is the fund’s first deadline for grant applications, Desai said. She said she did not know how many organizations would apply, or whether there would be more than one opportunity to apply in this fiscal year.

Some Wallingford councilors criticized the mayor Tuesday night for mentioning the grant with less than a month to apply, saying the town was purposely creating an urgent deadline situation to push through a pet project.

When asked Tuesday why they chose Simpson Court, town staff said that having little time to apply meant the town could only seek funds for already well-planned and surveyed downtown projects — Simpson Court, they said, was the only parking lot that had all the preliminary work completed.

Councilor Nick Economopoulos, a Democrat, said Wednesday by phone he felt the mayor neglected other possible projects and purposely shortened the deadline with the mindset of, “How can I do this instead to get what I really want done?” He also said that he was rebuffed when he asked the town for proof of when it received information on the grant.

The town’s program planner, Don Roe, who is in charge of writing and obtaining grants for the town, said the first he’d seen of the grant was a press release that came out in June, but he and other municipal officials got details of the grant in one of five workshops OPM held in late July and early August.

Desai and OPM literature both corroborate the time of the initial press release and the grant workshops.

“We waited for the workshops; there was that recognition this was a new initiative from them, that a lot of questions were getting asked, from staff people in communities near and far,” Roe said. He attended an Aug. 3 workshop, he said, and brought the information back to the town, heartened that the grant addressed partnerships between municipalities and private businesses. “I think there’s a clear recognition that downtowns take a collaborative effort — it’s not something that’s exclusively government, and not something that’s exclusively private,” Roe said. The grant application requires that town government leaders officially approve the project prior to submission. And one portion says it has to have local and regional support.

Economopoulos said the project doesn’t have public support, evidenced by voters quashing the initial project in referendum.

Desai said local and regional support means the town has already allocated funds to the project or other phases of the project, or planning and zoning has approved it.

When asked whether having a contentious project such as Wallingford’s with a previous referendum vote against it would hurt the town’s chances, Desai said she couldn’t comment on specific cases.

“We’ll review everything, make sure that everybody complies with what is required with the statutes,” Desai said.

Either way, Roe said he would mention the referendum in the grant proposal, if town staff end up getting the OK from the council to submit it. “I think the interest has been to put together a proposal that is quantitatively different than the past one, but still looks to address what are critical issues for downtown and downtown’s vitality,” Roe said.

As for the town’s chances to get the grant if they apply? Dickinson said he felt they were good.

“The support for a number of different elements are good, it’s a commercial area, it’s also got a school, I think that makes it a bit interesting,” Dickinson said.

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