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City Beat: Council split on federal funds for businesses, housing

Restaurant owners were given approval to use parking lots and sidewalks for business operations

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During its June 1 meeting, Springfield City Council members widely disagreed on how the city should use $916,000 of coronavirus relief funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The funding proposal was the hot topic of the night, and after an hour and a half of deliberation and testimony, council was still split on how the funds should be dispersed among business and affordable housing services.

Planning and Development Manager Brendan Griesemer said city staff surveyed residents during the first week of May and found that rent and mortgage assistance was considered a top priority. Business assistance was identified as a second large need in the community amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

City staff recommended allocations of $403,000 to businesses, $330,000 to public services and homelessness efforts, $45,600 to affordable housing assistance and roughly $137,500 to a COVID-19 contingency plan, according to bill documents.

However, Griesemer said $200,000 also is in the pipeline for housing assistance through separate federal grants outlined in the fiscal 2019 and 2020 budgets.

“We were trying to implement these funds with the greatest impact,” said Griesemer. “With a $10,000 loan … for an average business of 10 employees, that would help 10 families. Whereas, using that as a rental assistance, while much needed, would help maybe three or four families.”

Councilman Craig Hosmer opposed the city’s plan, saying housing assistance should be a top funding priority because it was identified as the key issue in the resident survey.

“If someone rents their property, that money is going to a business owner,” Hosmer said. “We have a significant problem with poverty in this city, and we talk about it a lot, but this is an actual opportunity to put our resources where we’ve been talking about.”

Councilman Richard Ollis spoke in favor of prioritizing business assistance, adding that helping companies stay open also keeps people employed.

“I fully support rent and utility assistance,” he said. “I just think the vehicle to get there is more effective by supporting small businesses and keeping them in business.”

Several residents spoke against the bill in its current form, citing concerns of making rent amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Victoria Altic, a Zone 4 resident, said she was laid off from her job at a restaurant and has yet to receive her unemployment checks. With no money coming in, she said she likely won’t be able to pay her rent that was due on the day of the council meeting.

“It’s time to prioritize the basic needs of families all over Springfield, and it’s high time that our budget actually reflects those priorities,” Altic said.

Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Morrow said federal grant programs for paycheck protections and economic injury disaster loans were helpful to some local businesses but not all. Griesemer also said the city found in its survey half of its respondents applied for an SBA loan, but 57% of those applicants were denied the federal funding.

“By most estimates, for more than half of small businesses, it wasn’t a fit or they ran out of dollars or were unable to get the loan,” Morrow said of the federal assistance. “Many of those are on life support right now and could really benefit from this support. It may actually be the difference between those businesses surviving this or not.”

Morrow suggested prioritizing minority-owned businesses with the funding, as well as other small businesses, rather than housing efforts.

“You’ll never have enough money for all of the rental assistance if we continue to have people losing jobs at the pace they’ve been losing them,” he said.

The Missouri Department of Economic Development recently reported that April’s unemployment rate rose to 9.7%, which was more than double that of March. The department also reported 305,100 job losses over the month of April.

Hosmer moved to give equitable funding to businesses and affordable housing services, which failed 5-4 with Mayor Ken McClure’s vote as the deciding factor. Hosmer then moved to table the bill to allow council members to further consider the proposed allocations, which was approved 6-3. Council is scheduled to reconsider the proposal on June 15.

Parking ratios
Council members approved two emergency bills that temporarily allow restaurant owners to provide additional dining opportunities in private parking lots and on sidewalks.

Owners must submit an application to the city with proof that the business will retain its parking requirements outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act and have clear paths for fire access, said Planning and Development Director Mary Lilly Smith. Those creating temporary sidewalk and street cafes would have a reduced public liability insurance requirement of $1 million, according to bill documents.

According to the city’s reopening plan, restaurants are allowed to operate dine-in services based on an occupancy formula that divides square footage by 30, then multiplies by 25%, which will be increased to 50% on June 15.

Councilwoman Phyllis Ferguson recommended the city include greenspace as available space for dining operations, and Ollis suggested making the change permanent.

Smith said the ordinance will be in effect until the first of three triggers: 100% occupancy of restaurants is permitted, the mayor’s proclamation of civil emergency has been lifted or Nov. 30.

Rezoning cases
Council heard first readings of a slew of rezoning cases as its meeting continued into the late hours of the night.

First up was a proposal for 68 acres on North Mulroy Road near Strafford to be rezoned from planned development and heavy manufacturing to an industrial commercial district.

SRC Holdings Corp. owns the land and is wrapping up work on a 162,000-square-foot industrial warehouse on a portion of the property. Dick Moger, executive vice president of SRC Holdings, told Springfield Business Journal the space will be used for the company’s SRC Logistics division. The rezoning request is a move to prepare for future expansion, he said.

“This way, we’re set,” Moger said, adding the acreage gives the company room to expand the facility to 600,000 square feet.

Next to Planet Fitness on West Republic Road, council considered allowing an automotive service garage to operate within a general retail district. The applicant for the rezoning of the space is 2851 W. Republic Rd LLC. Records filed with the secretary of state indicate Gaylen and Dedra Jones, owners of A-1 Electric Service Inc., are members of the LLC.

According to bill documents, the automotive garage would comprise 12 car bays in 22,000 square feet.

Council members also heard an annexation and rezoning request from Titus Williams of Prosperiti Partners for nearly 10 acres at 851 W. Plainview Road. Williams said he’s planning a multifamily residential development with a maximum density of 11 units per acre.

Many neighborhood members spoke in opposition of the project, including nearly two dozen statements sent via email to city staff, according to bill documents.

Neighbors who spoke in opposition expressed concern of the project lowering their property values, increasing traffic on Plainview Road, water runoff and increasing student counts to the school system.

Williams said he’s been working with neighbors to address those concerns, including reducing the number of units in the development to lessen traffic.

“We listened to all of their issues, and we believed we’ve remedied every one of those,” he told council.

Other action items:
• Staff presented a city budget and tax levy on real and personal property for the upcoming fiscal year. Both will be voted on at the next council meeting. The $368 million budget is roughly 6% lower than last year’s budget based on current sources of revenue and anticipated impacts by COVID-19, said Finance Director David Holtmann. He said the department will present a contingency plan to council later in June in case revenue losses are greater than anticipated.

• Council approved the tax increment financing and redevelopment plans for the IDEA Commons redevelopment. The $55 million project is expected to generate $3.3 million in local TIF revenues over a 23-year collection period, according to past SBJ reporting.

• Council also accepted a $364,000 grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health to allow the Springfield-Greene County Health Department to purchase COVID-19 testing materials. The first round of funding will equal $84,000 to acquire 13,000 COVID-test kits for investigation purposes, according to past SBJ reporting.

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