“I took some heat in my first term,” says Town of Minto Mayor George Bridge. “But I don’t any more.”
The push-back was from some who questioned the town putting money into programs like CIP that offer grants to support private investors improving property.
Southgate Township just approved its Community Improvement Plan, so there may be lessons in the experience from the Town of Minto.
Minto now has three people in its economic development department. And yes, that’s for a municipality of 9,000 people, the Minto mayor said, reciting the numbers like someone who has heard some objections before.
“What you really have to stress to your council and your communities is you can’t expect people to invest in these properties without an incentive,” he said in an interview with the Herald last fall.
For every dollar the municipality has put in, the private sector investment now is more than four dollars.
So how does he answer those who don’t see a role for municipalities in business? Well, actually, municipalities always have policies that affect business, he said.
What’s new is the possibility under provincial rules that a township, city or county can provide legal incentives to businesses to invest.
They do it through a CIP – a Community Improvement Plan.
And that coincides with a new vision of economic development – “we’re not chasing smoke stacks any more,” Mayor Bridge told the Herald in an interview late last year.
COMMUNITY GETS ON BOARD
He listed a few other actions that helped forge the path to where they are today.
Downtowns in Clifford, Harriston and Palmerston look better, more buildings are occupied, including some of the most deteriorated, and there is a team of residents in each town spearheading project such as projects like murals and benches.
Each town has a community group (revitalization committee) with one council member assigned to it. The group is given a $5,000 budget each year by the municipality.
A big factor in the success of the group is that those economic development staff members take care of the administration jobs like secretarial and financial duties. Those are the jobs no one can fill, and if you say yes, you’re in the job for 20 years, the mayor said.
The municipality also brought in people from an Ontario organization called Small Town Rising, who helped with the committees, and with helping the communities identify their “brand.”
“The Town’s not going to drive it,” he said, “the people are going to drive it.”
There is a lot of social media posting of the downtown improvements and decorations. “That’s coming from the people, not me. It’s totally amazing what they’ve done.”
There are now outside speakers in the downtown playing the local radio station, which will carry ads and promotions of local events.
THE FIRST MINTO CIP
A CIP is a toolbox of different approaches to use public money to encourage investment toward community goals – downtown improvement, re-use of industrial sites, attainable housing and ultimately growth that aligns with local priorities.
The first Minto Community Improvement Plan started more than a decade ago, in 2008.
At first, it provided incentive grants only for storefront (facade) and signage improvements.
This created a catalyst that led to success in filling most buildings except those that had major issues.
At that point, the Town recognized they needed a larger incentive to “really move the needle for our downtowns,” in the words of economic development manager Belinda Wick-Graham.
Minto then started offering a structural grant of up to $40,000. Minto has budgeted $60,000 annually for the last several years. The grants are offered on a first-come, first-serve basis.
That resulted in at least five significant buildings being “massively transformed” - with a big investment by the owner.
“These have created new apartments, allowed new businesses to open, created new jobs, and overall have added vibrancy to our downtowns again,” Belinda Wick-Graham wrote in response to an inquiry from the Herald.
“I could go on all day about how this program has transformed our communities.”
MEASURING THE CHANGE
Across the province, a common way of assessing the program is by the ratio of municipal investment to private investment.
The municipality uses tax dollars as in incentive to partner with the private sector to create more activity, first through construction, later in increased tax assessments and local business start-ups.
The Town of Minto also looks at the number of new businesses, number of jobs, number of desperately-needed apartments and the assessment increase.
Minto’s commercial assessment increased from 2008 by over 9 percent, and since 2010 more than $2.4 million in commercial construction value was added to the benefit of the community.
PICTURING THE CHANGE
Those involved on the municipal side, like the Mayor and staff talk about the impact on community pride, and the increased attraction to consumers and potential investors.
A picture speaks a thousand words in telling the story of the transformation and the improvement so the department takes before and after photos to show the physical changes.
DON’T JUST PASS THE PLAN, PROMOTE IT
The Town of Minto makes sure local realtors know about it as it’s an incentive to someone looking to invest in property.
Existing property owners and businesses are made aware of it
Keeping the plan fresh is important, too. Minto has added grants to support outdoor patios or public art in downtowns, and grants to support projects to plant more trees as consistent with regulations, either to improve urban areas or reduce snow drift in rural areas.
M.T. Fernandes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Dundalk Herald