Story By David Pena
The DDA is looking to jump-start the renovation and revitalization of downtown Springfield.
“If you’re not growing as a city, you’re dying,” says Lonnie Pate, Chairman of the Downtown Development Authority. “Growth is all about improving the community, and you need financial investment to do that, whether it be in housing or retail or any area. And while we have a county-wide Industrial Development Authority and Chamber of Commerce that help the entire county, we simply needed an entity like the DDA whose main focus is attracting new revenues specifically to the downtown area of Springfield.”
Erin Phillips, Springfield’s Community Development Director and coordinator for the DDA, says, “The city activated its Downtown Development Authority in 2016, which every community in the state is allowed by legislation to do. This allowed Springfield to have a bit more control over what happens to specific properties within the city and to help certain businesses and property owners be eligible for programs that are only available to those within a (designated) DDA area.”
Springfield created the DDA to both attract new businesses in Springfield, as well as, to oversee revitalization of properties located primarily on Laurel Street. The DDA is moving forward with plans to renovate one such property, the former Walt’s Furniture building, which the city purchased in 2015. Phillips explains, “When the city bought the building, the first question that came up was what exactly to do with it. In part, this was why the DDA was activated in the first place. The city did not have the means to renovate the building and didn’t want to sell it. Instead, it will be given to the DDA, who will then determine the most ideal use for the structure.”
The current plan is that the former furniture store will be leased to a tenant who would then sublease it to businesses that include retail and professional offices as well as a restaurant. The DDA would renovate the building, using a combination of grants and loans, and its primary tenant would then repay the DDA back for the renovation over a fifteen year period in a lease-to-own arrangement. Phillips says the building would have spaces for a variety of tenants, and after the project is finished, the DDA will move on to other buildings downtown.
“The Mars Theatre is the gem of Effingham,” says Pate. “We are so very proud of that project and its success, but we simply need more options downtown. The Mars is the only thing we have to offer after hours in Springfield, and we’ve got to attract more businesses in the area to compliment the Mars Theatre. Personally, I’d really like to see more restaurants opening up downtown. Hopefully, this (Walt’s Furniture store) project will be the impetus we need to get things really rolling in Springfield.”
“The DDA is very similar to an Industrial Development Authority, in that it is partially funded by the city, but operates as a completely separate organization from the city government,” explains Phillips. “The DDA is run by its own independent board, but the board members are appointed by the City Council.” That’s the reason behind the furniture building being given to the DDA instead of being put up for auction and turned into warehousing. “It’s just better for the growth of the downtown district,” adds Phillips.
The DDA is also offering “facade improvement” grants as well as startup grants to new businesses. “The board believes that offering these incentives will hopefully entice new small businesses to open downtown as well as encourage existing business to stay there,” says Phillips.
This, in turn, will “help promote revitalization and renovation of existing structures in downtown,” the DDA said in a letter to the city council. The facade grants would be matching funds from $500 to $2,500. The DDA would pay up to half of the cost of qualified projects, basically up to $2,500 per project. “It’s designed for any operating business in Springfield to install a new facade or renovate their existing one, provided that the property faces the street or parking area,” says Pate. The grant money could go toward improvements of awnings, signs, walls, paint as well as landscaping and courtyard improvements. In addition, the startup grants would be awarded to businesses that create new jobs downtown. Businesses could get $1,000 per new employee, with a cap of $2,000 per business.
Pate adds, “I’m really passionate about the work that the DDA is doing. This is where I live, so I want to make sure that my children’s children have places to go in Springfield. Let’s face it- Springfield has not really been known as a hot spot in Effingham, but by tidying up the existing businesses downtown, these grants would hopefully help attract new businesses for the future.
Honestly, it’s just like any neighborhood, in that sense. If someone is looking to build a house somewhere, then they first take a look at the properties around it.” And while Pate is pleased at the progress of the renovation of the old Walt’s Furniture building, he emphasizes that the project is just the start of a long process for the city. “This is really only the beginning of a long-term plan for our city; it’s the start of great things to come for Springfield.”