Watertown Trust approves incentive program for downtown business district

The downtown business district will be getting another shot in the arm from the Watertown Local Development Corp.

The corporation, also known as the Watertown Trust, has put together a three-pronged marketing strategy to help fill vacant storefronts, attract businesses and fix up building facades in the city’s downtown business district.

The Watertown Trust on Thursday approved the downtown incentive plan it has discussed during the past two months. A four-member committee put together the strategy during the past month.

Board members are focusing on about 35 kinds of businesses, such as hardware, clothing, furniture and drug stores, that would bring in lots of activity downtown, said Donald W. Rutherford, the development corporation’s CEO.

The businesses should serve 100 customers or more, rather than just a handful, said board member Michael A. Lumbis, who’s also a city planner.

Board member Donald C. Alexander, who also serves as the CEO of the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency, said the marketing efforts will help downtown.

“We’re building a better mouse trap and have to let people know about it,” he said.

The rental subsidy program is designed to help attract new businesses, or existing ones from outside the city, into Public Square. The Trust will pay a 50 percent lease subsidy for eligible businesses that agree to stay in a storefront or commercial space for three years.

Initially, the Watertown Trust would fund up to $60,000 for five projects, he said.

Storefronts in the Woolworth and Lincoln buildings could be likely candidates for the rental program. About 8.000 square feet of commercial space in the 50-apartment Woolworth Building is vacant, while the first in a series of storefronts in the Lincoln Building is ready for occupancy.

The Watertown Trust will start offering a downtown micro loan program allowing businesses to borrow up to $40,000 for any purpose, except to pay on bank debt. Up to 10 businesses will be considered during the first year of the program. The loans, with 3 percent interest, must be paid off within six years.

The agency has offered similar citywide loans in the past.

The Trust also is bringing back its facade improvement program, but only loans will be offered this time, Mr. Rutherford said. Previously, it was a grant program.

Under the program, a maximum of $25,000 per loan will be offered. The no-interest loans are for three years.

The Watertown Trust has also been working on a new interactive website to market residential and business sites around Public Square.

In recent years, downtown has been going through a renaissance with the completion of the Woolworth Building, the prospects of the Lincoln Building going through a complete renovation and several smaller completed projects dotting the business district.

Earlier this week, COR Development Co., Fayetteville, announced it was proceeding with 108 rental units and 30,000 square feet of commercial space on the former Mercy Hospital site.

By Craig Fox, Watertown Daily Times