City plans to pay out aid to businesses next week, seeks additional money – Business Journal Daily
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City plans to pay out aid to businesses next week, seeks additional money – Business Journal Daily

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Distribution of $200,000 approved by the City Council to help downtown businesses affected by the May 28 explosion near the Realty Tower should begin by the end of next week, city officials said Tuesday afternoon.

Council members approved funding for the Economic Rapid Response Program during a special meeting June 20. During a meeting July 3, the city Board of Control approved an agreement with the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber Foundation to serve as the fiscal agent for the fund.

A press release issued by the city after the Control Board meeting said the chamber’s foundation “will be able to accept donations from individuals and organizations to help businesses,” but it didn’t provide many additional details about how the fund would work.

Nikki Posterli, chief of staff to Mayor Jamael Tito Brown and director of the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development Department, and Economic Development Director Stephanie Gilchrist shared those details and outlined other initiatives aimed at downtown businesses during a City Council Community Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting Tuesday.

“We’re building the car as we go,” Posterli told commissioners during the meeting. City officials had previously come to the commission to seek help for struggling businesses throughout the city, but after the explosion, officials felt the need to shift their focus specifically to the city center.

The goal is to use the $200,000 to “seed” an initiative that would help downtown businesses that have had to deal with the impacts of downtown infrastructure projects, the COVID-19 pandemic and now the fallout from the explosion over the past five years, she said. City officials are in the process of finalizing a list of downtown businesses that would qualify for assistance, focusing on those that rely on foot traffic, such as restaurants.

That process should be completed by Monday, Gilchrist said, after which the city will contact the businesses to allocate the funds.

Posterli said only companies that were in operation before January 1, 2023, and are still operating will be able to apply for the money.

“If you’re closed, you’re not eligible,” she added. “We need businesses that are open and that rely on this now.” Potentially, funds could be available later to help businesses reopen, but these funds are focused on keeping businesses open now.

After the initial grants are awarded and as more money is added to the fund, businesses will be asked to provide additional information to determine how much more they could receive so the city can be “fair” and “honest” with future payouts, Gilchrist said.

City and chamber officials have already met with local “philanthropic partners” about potentially adding money to the fund, Posterli said. She and other city leaders met with U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, when he was in town Monday to meet with people affected by the explosion about possible federal funding, and state funding is also being explored, she said.

Sixth Ward Councilwoman Anita Davis suggested another potential source of funds – $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan funds originally earmarked for the proposed safety campus

Other initiatives being discussed include helping downtown businesses with marketing, Posterli said, including developing a marketing plan to help them in the short term.

“Time is of the essence. This money was needed yesterday,” said 4th Ward Councilman Mike Ray. “If we don’t spend more on medical treatment, we’ll spend it on funeral planning.”

He also shared frustrations expressed by members of the downtown business community. He stressed that the city needs to have a communications plan and that officials need to meet with business owners in person to tell them what the city is doing to help.

Business owners are getting updates from media outlets, said First Ward Councilman Julius Oliver. Business owners last week wanted to know when they should expect to receive the funds.

“When we were working on this, we had nothing to say to them last week,” Posterli said. “I knew we had the money. I knew we wanted to do something.” She said she and Gilchrist regularly talk to downtown business owners.

“Communication is bad,” Oliver said. “What I hear most often is that there is no communication.”

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