By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
Two new grants for Liberty Hill businesses seek to extend the City’s beautification efforts from downtown to the commercial corridor on State Highway 29.
The programs would provide matching funds of 50 percent or up to $5,000 for highway signage and for building demolitions, and were approved last Thursday by the City’s Economic Development Corp. Board.
EDC Executive Director Lance Dean said the intended effect is “two-fold.”
“We want to help the businesses that are currently here keep growing, and then, from an attraction and recruiting standpoint, we want employers to locate here. And perception is reality.”
The Sign Grant program allows Liberty Hill’s existing businesses to apply for funds from the EDC to cover half of the costs associated with upgrading, repairing or removing their highway signs. A ceiling is set at $5,000.
“We think it’s a great opportunity to refresh or upgrade,” Dean says. “There’s been a lot of development over the last 15 or 20 years in how signs look, and they can be expensive investments.”
The Demolition program follows the same funding model for expenses related to a structure’s demolition, which Dean said has often been a cost deterrent for businesses seeking to locate along Liberty Hill’s stretch of Highway 29.
Dean said the programs have the potential to raise the image of the entire city, and could replicate the success he says was created by the EDC’s Downtown Facade Grant program.
The Facade Grant program subsidized beautification projects for downtown business owners. Among others the grant has been applied for by Majda Parker from Parker’s Corner Market, to renovate a dilapidated building into a vintage-style events venue, and by the Masonic Lodge for repairs to their stained glass windows.
The idea to subsidize costs business owners face when trying to refresh their highway signage was first discussed by the EDC in April.
Since then the proposal gained traction among Liberty Hill’s business community.
Cindy Montemayor, the owner of Happy Trails, said last week that she would be interested in the program, which “could make the unattainable, attainable.”
“For small businesses, expenses are very tight, and so anything that can help your signage and bring in business is a plus,” she said.
Previously, the child care center had been exploring costs for repairs on their sign, but held back when Montemayor heard of the upcoming sign grant program.
If they could put more money into the sign, she said, “then it’s not two boards with a plastic sign over it anymore. Maybe it could become a permanent structure that’s more eye-catching.”
Signs vary in cost based on the materials used, but typically run into the thousands.
Basic channel lettering large enough to be seen by the highway can cost between $3,500-5,000, one retailer said. A monument style sign can cost $7,000, and an electronic marquee, over $10,000.
The grant is only available to existing businesses in Liberty Hill.
An additional requirement, which the grant can be used to help a business meet, is that a property have removed all off-premise signs.
These are signs that advertise for businesses that are located elsewhere, or nowhere at all. City ordinances
“Some of the signs around town are flat-out abandoned,” Dean said.
183 Signs & Embroidery owner Cindy Chivers said these off-premise signs are not only “tacky,” they also hurt their business.
Her business, which makes signage, will not install off-premise signs in the city, Montemayor said, because local ordinances prohibit them. But she says other sign businesses will— and do.
Chivers also said the sign grant idea was “fantastic,” and that other nearby cities do not have anything like it.
She was one of the 12 or so business owners who attended the EDC’s open forum in June, when discussion of the need for help with demolition first arose.
Also attending was Michelle Watts from Liberty Hill Collision Center, who said last week that she would have applied for the demolition grant if it had been available two years ago when they were searching for a property.
“It was very difficult for us to find a place to do business in Liberty Hill,” she said. “The land is all developed. There were several spots that were very appealing, except that we couldn’t do the demolition.”
Watts said her business, an auto body shop, has special needs such as the ability to move large equipment in and out on a regular basis. They eventually settled in a location on US 183 just outside the city limits.
She said Dean called her several weeks after the forum to ask for her thoughts on a demolition grant program.
“I told him, I think it’s a wonderful thing and it would be awesome for many people trying to move in the city,” she said.
Dean said that many structures along Liberty Hill’s stretch of Hwy 29 had “outlived their usefulness.”
He said he hopes that for prospective small businesses, the grant will be able to help “tip the scales” toward turning these properties over.
Like the sign grant program, the demolition grant is intended for existing local businesses.
“It’s not going to make a difference to a Schlotzsky’s or other franchise, they’re not going to care, and it’s not going to figure in for them,” Dean said.
Chivers also said her business would have used a demolition grant if it had been available a year ago. As Watts’ Liberty Hill Collision Center did, they too settled on a property outside the city limits on US 183.
She said she was impressed with how quickly the input from the business forum had become a real proposal.
“It’s all moving faster than I expected,” she said.