Auburn program targets downtown blight


AUBURN — Downtown property owners will be able to apply for public money this spring designed to put a brighter face on buildings and business fronts.

“We have had programs in the past that were similar, to clean up buildings, but the council didn’t like the way they worked,” Reine Mynahan, Auburn’s director of community development, said. “This is a little different.”

Auburn’s new program is similar to Lewiston’s facade grant program. Both provide federal Community Development Block Grant money to downtown property owners to encourage them to clean up their buildings.

“But Lewiston has a district with face fronts, and Auburn really doesn’t,” Mynahan said. “All of the buildings in Auburn’s have four visible sides to worry about. With a few exceptions, they are not butting quite the same way. So when you think about our target area, we really are talking about a variety of buildings not just a side.”

The new program will be competitive, with applications scored on where they are located, how much private money is being invested and what neighbors are doing. Winning proposals could get up to $10,000 toward exterior design work, priming and painting and repairs to roofs, windows, doors and other exterior features.

The curb appeal program will be targeted downtown, in New Auburn and the Union Street neighborhoods.

“It has to be in the targeted area, but some streets will rank higher than others, and so will prominence in the neighborhood,” Mynahan said. “All of these things are designed to remove blight and to make a visual improvement in the area.”

Projects along streets that draw a lot of automobile traffic will be promoted.

“Obviously, the curb appeal comes from the front,” Mynahan said. “But there is more. We have a limited pool of money, so we really are trying to get projects that will be seen, projects that have the biggest bang for the buck.”

It’s part of a raft of changes city councilors approved for Mynahan’s Community Development department last week. It involved eliminating a number of loan and grant programs and creating some new ones.

“We reviewed all of the block grant programs and what we have for resources,” she said. “We decided there are some programs we can’t support any more. Over 20 years we’ve responded to demand and created programs. We just had to many.”

Gone are the energy loan, historic preservation, accessibility, down payment assistance and tree-planting block grant programs. Most have been replaced with other city programs.

Mynahan said another new program will provide loans to small businesses or entrepreneurial startups. To qualify, the business owner must either be considered low income — currently earning 80 percent of the average wage — or must use the grant to hire at least one low-income person.

They can use the loan, up to $15,000 to buy equipment, for construction or to establish a line of credit.

“Our goal is to create a kind of economic opportunity-type program,” Mynahan said. “I envision this will be more for startups, but it’s not restricted to them. It is restricted to businesses with five or fewer employees, so it is not for large businesses.”

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