SEDA officials talk future business in Stephenville

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SEDA Executive Director John Hubbard

By AMANDA KIMBLE
TheFlashToday.com

STEPHENVILLE (September 19, 2016) – After a slow start and leadership struggles, it appears Stephenville Economic Development Authority (SEDA) is fully focused on attracting new businesses to the city.

At its meeting Thursday, the Type B authority’s board of directors discussed several agenda items from basic housekeeping and goals to marketing and more.

PROPOSED BUSINESS IMPROVEMENT PROGRAM

John Hubbard, executive director, said attracting new business and development relies on existing businesses and a community that is inviting to new residents as well. He studies have shown that, among other things, businesses rank available workforce and quality of life as more important than incentives when seeking a suitable location.

With such issues in mind, SEDA made progress on initiatives to help bolster existing businesses, including a grant program aimed at improving curb appeal of storefronts, commercial buildings and offices. They also discussed the potential allocation of tax funds for a future sports venue, which could offer entertainment for locals while at the same time attracting visitors.

Once approved, the Façade & Infrastructure Improvement Program would allow qualified applicants to receive up to $5,000 to improve the “visual appearance and economic vitality of Stephenville by encouraging the exterior improvement of commercial/retail/office structures.”

The program would award funds to qualified applicants as long as certain conditions are met. But comments exchanged by directors showed the businesses will share the expense with SEDA.

“Don’t you think they need to have skin in the game, too?” Director Keith Brown asked, referring to funding.

“This is a matching grant program,” Matt Harpole, board president, explained.

To qualify for the maximum $5,000 in matching funds, the total cost of approved projects must be $10,000 or more. It’s not yet clear if a single business would be able to utilize the program to improve various aspects of their businesses exterior, which Hubbard said was for the board to decide.

Meanwhile, Harpole said SEDA received a lot of feedback when Hoffbrau Steaks was looking to establish a restaurant in town. When incentives were being offered to the potential newcomers, existing business owners asked what the authority could offer them.

“This is it,” Harpole said.

While the details of the program have not been finalized or approved, Harpole said he learned a lot from other economic development entities.

Locally, Dublin Economic Development Corporation recently amended a similar ordinance to cut losses on the program. It initially provided funding to new businesses to assist with signage and other startup expenses, but Harpole said the Dublin EDC board later decided to offer funding to existing business owners. He said switch was made after new businesses that had benefitted from the program closed shortly after receiving funding.

Draft details of the SEDA program say grant funding prospects would be required to provide the authority with a complete application, including a project budget, estimates for the improvements, photos of the project area, commitment to maintain the upgrades and a letter of approval from the property owner when applicable.

When a business owner is awarded funding, they would be required to work with city staff ensure permitting, zoning and other city ordinances are followed, and completed improvements will be inspected to ensure they conform to rules and regulations.   

Improvements eligible for funding include complete façade rehabilitation; replacement of broken windows and doors; restoration of historic architectural features; attached signage; canopies and awnings and more.

New commercial construction, interior remodeling or renovations, fencing, burglar bars, roofing repairs and completed projects or those already under contract are on the current list of ineligible improvements.

Shelby Slawson, SEDA board secretary, said ineligible projects should also include any repair work, such as roofing, covered by insurance claims. She also said program details should encourage grant recipients to utilize local vendors and service providers.

Stephenville Chamber of Commerce CEO July Danley, an ex-officio SEDA director, agreed but said the board should make shopping local a requirement rather than a preference.

Harpole said he would like to see the program open to applicants prior to the end of the year, allowing SEDA to simultaneously work to retain existing businesses and attract new ones.

CONSIDERING SUPPORT FOR GROWING BUSINESS

In other items of business, the board held a public hearing for a request for funding recently made by Twisted J.

While no comments were made, Hubbard explained the growing business asked for assistance in purchasing a new $61,000, six-head embroidery machine.

Hubbard said before the board considers approving the allocation of taxpayer funds, he will first run a cost-benefit analysis.

“There will be some benefit, I just need to determine how much,” Hubbard said, adding the business has hired four or five new employees since relocating to the former home of Downunder Horsemanship and plans to hire four more once the new equipment is in place.

While Twisted J is not located within city limits, Hubbard explained (following a question from Director Michele Dunkerly) the business is qualified to receive assistance since it’s within Stephenville’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ).

Slawson said before she could consider approval, she would want to see the details of a performance agreement.

Further consideration of the request is expected to be given at the board’s October 27 meeting.

DISCUSSING A SPORTS AUTHORITY

While it’s was only an item of discussion, Hubbard presented the board with details related to the establishment of Stephenville Sports Authority.

He said local government code and the Development Corporation Act of 1979 allow the use of tax money to finance a wide range of community and sports-related capital projects.

“After a public approval process, cities may use up to 25 percent of their local sales tax revenue to finance the construction of community and sports venues,” Hubbard said.

He also said voters may approve or reject any reduction of an existing local sales tax to accommodate a venue tax for facilities such as sports arenas, coliseums, stadiums and others buildings to accommodate professional or amateur sporting events.

Finally, Hubbard said local government code also allows the city to impose a sports venue hotel occupancy tax (HOT), collecting funds from tourism and travelers to benefit community and its residents and adding to the existing hotel tax.

Attorney Jeff Moore explained the law, saying it allows the city to adopt up to an additional two percent HOT for a sports venue with voter approval.

Hubbard said cutting into existing HOT allocations is another option, but not necessarily a plan for SEDA.

Current HOT allocations deliver four cents of every HOT dollar collected to the Stephenville Chamber of Commerce and a penny each to Stephenville Historical House Museum and Cross Timbers Fine Arts Council. The city also retains a penny.    

Meanwhile, Harpole said the board was simply discussing the establishment of a sports authority, not the construction of any certain venue at any particular time.

APPROVING A LIST OF ITEMS

Action items included the approval of the SEDA logo, which is similar to the city’s; approval of the application for the assumed name “Stephenville Economic Development Authority,” removing “Type B” when doing business; and establishing a separate bank account the ties into the city’s existing account, which allows SEDA to write checks and the city’s finance director to serve as authority’s finance administrator.

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