Superior’s small business grant program has been a success story for the city.
The program has awarded more than $140,000 to help 11 businesses improve their buildings and upgrade equipment; fund expansions and additions; and help one business relocate and another prepare to open anew.
However, getting there required the City Council to add revenue to the program in October after funding ran out.
Now the Superior Plan Commission is considering options that could help make the city’s limited resources go farther.
“I want to gauge your feelings on a change to the small business grant program,” said Mayor Jim Paine, who initiated the discussion. “It’s been fairly successful. We’ve awarded our full capacity of grants and helped a number of businesses. That success kind of underlies my concern with it. At some point it’s going to be hard to fund this program, and I think that’s going to come sooner rather than later.”
Paine said he’s worried about maintaining the solvency of the economic development fund, which pays for the grants.
The mayor proposed focusing on new or expanding businesses or those that relocate to Superior.
“What it notably would take out are those established businesses that are looking for grants to do something within their existing operation, which is what a lot of our grants have been,” Paine said.
Jason Serck, economic development, port and planning director, said the conversation is just beginning. Officials wanted to get ideas from the commissioners and hear what they think.
The goal of the program was to help small businesses, recognizing the fact that large developments in the city often receive incentives, Paine said.
“We wanted to provide support to entrepreneurs and small businesses in the community and potentially even help them stave off disaster if they were in some kind of trouble,” Paine said. “I don’t think we played out that scenario at the time, but sure enough, when the pandemic hit, we were able to adapt this program with council action to support a number of businesses that were in trouble.”
A portion of the available funding was set aside to create microgrants for small businesses in the city that were forced to close their doors during Wisconsin’s safer-at-home order.
“The fact is it has been successful; we really can’t argue that,” Paine said. “I don’t regret any of the grants that we awarded … but I don’t want to have to turn away a business that is opening.”
Councilor Tylor Elm suggested the city could place new businesses as a higher priority by providing them with more funding, but still provide some level of funding for existing businesses. He also suggested extending the period of time before a business can apply for another grant from one year to three.
Paine proposed striking the option to apply for a second grant altogether.
Councilor Brent Fennessey said what he really likes about the program is that it allows the city to invest in the businesses that already call Superior home.
“So by taking that component out, I really, really struggle with it,” Fennessey said.
He suggested seeking additional funding for the program from the council or to change the process the plan commission uses when it considers projects.
A number of commissioners agreed with Fennessey, and said they would not support limiting grants to new businesses. Commissioner Ann Porter suggested reducing the size of the grants.
Commissioner Dennis Dalbec noted that many businesses have been in Superior for decades, and there are alternatives for larger businesses.
“I think we have to take care of our own first,” he said.
Serck said the commissioners generated "a lot of good ideas" and said one option could be to divide the funding among new and existing businesses.
The mayor agreed there are many good options to consider.
“Unless there are any final thoughts, I think we’ll throw it all in, shake it around and see what comes out at the next meeting,” Paine said.
Paine will draft a new program based on the suggestions for the commission to consider in January.
Either way, he said the city will be operating under the existing program in January to begin awarding grants. The Superior City Council approved the economic development fund budget Tuesday, Dec. 15, which set aside $200,000 in funding for the small business grant program.