City plans business grant program | News, Sports, Jobs

Altoona officials are trying to figure out how best to set up and operate a program that would use about $1 million of American Rescue Plan Act money for business revitalization grants.

This effort would complement a recently established program that will use approximately $4 million in ARPA money for potentially much larger development loans.

Grants would go to businesses in the city with no more than 50 employees for start-up capital; for working capital or operational support; or for physical improvements or the purchase of real estate or equipment, according to guidelines presented by City Manager Omar Strohm this week to City Council.

The objective is to improve the land and wage bases of the city and to create jobs.

Applicants will need to document expected costs and recipients will need to document actual expenditures.

The city will seek “people who have the integrity to follow”, Strohm said. “Not people looking to make a quick buck (or who would) spending mindlessly.”

It has not been determined whether the city will provide the grant money up front or as reimbursement for money recipients have already spent.

Limiting payments to reimbursements could exclude valid potential beneficiaries, but paying in advance could lead to “People take the money and do what they want with it” Strohm said.

The Altoona Blair County Development Corp. might be able to help the city “thread the needle”, so he could pay upfront, but only after receiving a guarantee would the money be spent properly, according to Strohm.

Maximum grant amounts have yet to be determined, though Strohm’s original proposal of $75,000 is too high, he told the board.

Far too high, according to Mayor Matt Pacifico, who suggested a maximum of $5,000 or $10,000, saying it would help ensure a wide distribution of funds.

That’s too low, especially given current inflation, said adviser Dave Ellis, who cited a recent trip to a building supply store as evidence – then suggested $20,000 to $25,000 as the maximum .

Strohm hoped that ABCD would administer the grant program, as it does with the revolving loan program, but the organization only offers advice, so administration will be done by city staff, which presents a challenge – although outside help is possible, officials said.

The work will include verifying claims, tracking funds and performing audits, according to Strohm.

The tasks will likely go to employees in the planning and community development department, which has been without a dedicated director since the start of 2021 – although Strohm has hired Diana White, who will start in the middle of the month.

The need for expertise to oversee the proposed new program may necessitate hiring even more help, officials say.

The scheme will likely come under the supervision of the Redevelopment Authority, at the suggestion of Councilman Bruce Kelley.

Outside help could come from local banks, Pacifico suggested.

It could also come from the Sheetz Entrepreneurial Center at Penn State Altoona or Saint Francis University, which will have outreach in Curry’s nearly completed headquarters building, adviser Ron Beatty said.

The SCORE business mentorship program could be another source of help, someone suggested.

“The (subsidy) program is really aggressive,” said Ellis. “That’s what the ARPA money was sent for.”

The city receives a total of $39.6 million in ARPA funds.

The Mirror’s staff writer, William Kibler, is at 814-949-7038.

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