February 29, 2008

Grants aid small business revitalization

A new city program targeted at small business owners is helping some 53rd-Street businesses, such as Kimbark Coin Laundry and the newly opened Asian fusion restaurant Chant, to improve their facilities and service options. The Small Business Improvement Fund (SBIF) reimburses owners up to $150,000 in permanent improvements they make to their businesses.

“Basically, the SBIF is supposed to be the way the city injects capital in areas that need revitalization,” SBIF director Derek Walvoord said. “The 53rd Street area is nice but it’s good to get things spruced up a little bit. We hopefully help businesses do a little more than they can already do.”

In order for owners to receive the grant, their proposed changes must improve the neighborhood’s appearance or economic value and help businesses stay in the area and remain competitive. Eligible requirements include rehabbing, remodeling, and renovation projects such as new roofs or façades, and purchases of adjacent land. The owners pay for the improvements and are reimbursed when the project is complete.

The SBIF is one of the city’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) programs, which gives incentives to private developers to invest in areas that have trouble attracting development. Hyde Park businesses must be in the 53rd Street TIF district to be eligible for SBIF funding, according to Irene Sherr, founder of the consulting group Community Counsel.

Chicago’s TIF program has been criticized for helping large-scale, developer-driven projects while neglecting small businesses. The SBIF is changing that perception by helping to develop and improve small businesses throughout the city, Sherr said.

SBIF is aimed at small businesses with one location, not franchise businesses or national or local chains, she said.

“The idea is to help smaller businesses make it. Things like Dunkin’ Donuts or Leona’s couldn’t apply. It’s to help small business owners succeed,” she said.

So far, the grant application process has gone smoothly, largely bypassing the bureaucratic cycle typically associated with government programs, Sherr said.

The city contracts the program to the development company SomerCor, which is involved with the improvements from start to finish. According to Walvoord, who runs the program though SomerCor, the SBIF has relied on support from Community Counsel and Alderman Toni Preckwinkle for the Hyde Park improvements.

“The 53rd Street improvements have gone smoothly because of the huge community support. There is a TIF advisory council, which is very unusual for a neighborhood but very helpful,” he said.

The owners of Kimbark Coin Laundry, Chant, and Hyde Park Produce have all used SBIF grant money to make improvements to their businesses. Additionally, Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen is considering improving its dining room with SBIF grants, Walvoord said.

“It’s a great program. Chant looks wonderful and the Kimbark Laundry’s improvements have been great,” he said.

A SBIF grant enabled Kimbark Coin Laundry owner Darryl Crawford to make more improvements to his business than he had originally planned.

The SBIF paid for permanent improvements such as new hot water heaters, repairs to the floor, ceiling, and lights, and a surveillance system for which the business had been saving money. He was able to use the saved money to add new features such as wi-fi internet access and televisions for his customers.

“We would not have been able to complete this project to the magnitude we did without the SBIF,” he said.

Crawford said that expanding SBIF to include new equipment and business trade improvement would be useful additions to its current programs. Crawford said that while the SBIF is a good way for the city to start helping small businesses, more can be done in the future.

“I think the county and state have a responsibility to help small business because they collect tax revenue from us. So they would benefit from it,” he said.