City economic agency floats small-business grants idea

HARLINGEN — The City of Harlingen’s economic development corporation is moving to reward small businesses through an innovative new grant program which could mean $1,000 to help defray property renovations, improvements and inventory losses.

The Harlingen Helps initiative was revealed this week at the Harlingen Economic Development Corp.’s monthly board meeting.

“Sixty cents of every dollar that is spent in this community is actually re-circulated back into the community from these small businesses,” Beverly Loftus, the HEDC’s commercial development manager, told the board. “Twenty cents of every dollar from a chain store is re-circulated back.

“They employ about 50 percent of the private workforce, they produce about 40 percent of the private sales, 75 percent of the net new jobs added in the U.S., they provide that as well,” she added. “They contribute to a higher percentage of sales back into our local economy.”

The HEDC, like most of its kind, is better known for its pursuit of big-money corporate relocations with commensurately large numbers of new jobs when talking about economic development. But Harlingen Helps recognizes and rewards the crucial role played in the city’s economy by businesses which operate with 15 or fewer employees.

The HEDC asked the board to set aside $300,000 for Harlingen Helps.

“Basically, it gives back to small businesses, especially those that have been impacted by various events that happened over the last year,” said Raudel Garza, the CEO of the development agency, referring to last summer’s flooding. “And so this idea that we came up with will to try to do that.”

Loftus outlined the parameters of which businesses qualify, saying they must meet the definition of a “small business” set out by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Eligible expenses for a business owner or property owner for grants of up to $1,000 would include building renovations or site improvements, interior repair, painting and resurfacing of structure walls and flooring, restoration of significant architectural details, roof repairs, some architectural and engineering fees as well as development review fees.

For-profit entities within the city limits would be eligible, but only if they conform to all current codes and ordinances. Prohibited businesses include adult businesses, businesses which promote gambling, including sweepstakes, cyber internet cafes, new construction projects or businesses operating from residential properties.

National or regional businesses headquartered in Harlingen also would qualify for the grants, she said.

Some board members questioned the intent of the program and how it would be implemented.

“I don’t want it to become (a) free check that’s so easy to get,” said board member Ricky Leal. “Is this specifically to help people recover from the last year’s events?”

Garza clarified that while some businesses which suffered property and inventory damage due to the June floods would qualify, the business grants would cover a much broader range of expenses and need not be disaster-related.

The board’s reaction to the proposal was positive, although the motion to approve the $300,000 was tabled until the January meeting to be taken up again once questions about eligibility and other issues are clarified.

“I love the idea, I love it,” said board member Linda Burke.