Influx of millions in federal funds to Meriden spurs debate over priorities

MERIDEN — The city is set to receive $24.8 million in federal recovery funds and an additional $11 million in state funds to help it rebuild and continue protection efforts against the pandemic.

The American Rescue Plan aims to deliver $350 billion for eligible state, local, territorial, and tribal governments to respond to the COVID-19 emergency and bring back jobs.

Municipal officials received the 100-page federal guidelines that detail how the funds can be utilized last week. The money became available May 17.

“They have to be drawn down from the U.S. Treasury,” said City Manager Timothy Coon. “Finance (Department) is completing the administrative requirements in order to do so. The city is working on a mechanism to provide guidance for the use of these funds.”

Because the state doesn’t have county governments, $11.4 million aimed at county governments is being passed through the state to the city.

The federal spending is designed to turn the tide on the pandemic, address its economic fallout, and lay the foundation for a strong and equitable recovery, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. About $195 billion will go to the states and Washington, D.C. The goals are to replace lost revenue, strengthen support for vital public services, help retain jobs, support immediate economic stabilization for households and businesses, and address systemic public health and economic challenges that have contributed to the unequal impact of the pandemic. The funds also allow municipalities to invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

The amount of money each municipality received was based on a complicated formula using census information and block grant calculations. A final three to five year plan on investing the funding will likely be ready in July, city officials said.

The city has already allocated $1.2 million of the relief funds to offset a tax increase.

“The key here is it needs to be long term,” said city Economic Development Director Joseph Feest. “Whatever we do it should be a long-term benefit. It should be very meaningful and do everyone a lot of good.”

As city staff reviews the spending rules, two things are clear. It can’t be used for projects or items that have already been budgeted or bonded, Feest said, and that this is an opportunity not likely to ever return on the same scale.

Key areas

Feest is among several leaders who want to see investment in downtown redevelopment, and in other areas of the city.

At a recent joint meeting of the city’s Economic Development Housing and Zoning Committee and the Planning Commission, members brought up the idea of direct spending on downtown properties to spur restaurants and breweries to open in the transit-oriented district.

“I’d like to see if we can do a pool,” said Democratic City Councilor Michael Rohde, chairman of the committee. “We took a hit in momentum when COVID hit, which put a halt on what we tried to accomplish down there.”

Rohde wants to see the city moving on three or four buildings to “spur some activity.”

“I’m not exactly sure how we’ll access the funds,” Rohde said. “We can identify projects with a cost estimate, and review how it will impact the city going forward. There have been a lot of things in the pipeline, this is an opportunity to move these projects along.”

Feest supports the idea but wants to see if the guidelines would allow investments in properties the city doesn’t own, or places other spending limitations. As economic development director, Feest wants to see more research into ways to spur growth on the city’s west side, and revisit changes in zoning regulations to spur more commercial development along the Route 5 corridor, the Undercliff property and along Chamberlain Highway near the mall.

Like other city officials Feest recognizes that code updates are holding back badly needed building renovations.

“Even 24 Colony St.,” new commercial construction, Feest said. “To put up the dividers, ceilings and walls costs a pretty penny.”

A new restaurant or cafe owner can’t always afford to spend $100,000 in building costs and another $150,000 in equipment and not be certain it will pay off. Feest supports city investment if allowed.

“The big question is if,” he said.

Regional component

Feest is also working with the regional economic development agency Rex Development on separate initiatives impacting economic development in the Greater New Haven area — for instance, providing broadband in some areas to allow businesses to let workers telecommute and large scale projects such as building the North Haven train station.

“If it’s something that happens in Meriden it impacts the whole region,” said Rex Development spokeswoman Ginny Kozlowski. “Like, in North Haven with Amazon, it’s a building process that lifts all. It’s a new world and we’re all working on trying to move out of response mode and into recovery mode.”

In Meriden, Feest discovered business weaknesses during the pandemic. An investment in small business training could help businesses stay afloat, work better with banks and expand. It’s a proposal he’s working on through the regional agency.

Rex Development is working on a separate plan utilizing different funding and will reveal a regional proposal in July.

Planning Commission Chairman Steven Iovanna said this month that he hoped to see the city invest in incubator space to fill vacant storefronts by offering low-cost rents to small entrepreneurs in the hopes they’ll lease larger spaces. Planning Commission member and downtown landlord Ross Gulino echoed Rohde, calling for a pool of resources to help downtown owners bring their buildings to code and allow for changes in use from retail and office to dining, entertainment and breweries.

Lasting impact

Mayor Kevin Scarpati has said he doesn’t want to see the cash influx as a short-term spending spree and agreed that any solution has to be long lasting.

“Primarily. I want to see most of this funding going back to the community. I see this as an opportunity to help businesses and nonprofits,” Scarpati said. “We have been partnering with nonprofits for summer enrichment programs for students. I look at it as something much larger for the community.”

Scarpati said there is an infrastructure component, and supports direct investment in projects that can improve and market city-owned properties to private developers.

In addition to long term, larger scale projects, Scarpati also wants to see an investment in nonprofits that work with the city’s residents and children. Student social and mental health are also priorities and investments in programs such as summer camp and other opportunities can provide long-lasting benefits to the whole community, he said.

“I don’t want this to be a flash in the pan and it’s gone four years later,” Scarpati said. “In July, we’ll have a better understanding on where and how it will be distributed.”

The Meriden Economic Development Corp. is putting its own proposal to city officials.

“We are in discussions with the City Economic Development Department and our MEDCO participants on this topic and we are working on some potential proposals to ‘jump start’ our economic development efforts — particularly to finally try to advance our efforts to revitalize our TOD and downtown,” said MEDCO President Thomas Welsh in an email.

The group plans to submit proposal letters to the city in the next week or two, Welsh said.

“This appears to be a once in a generation (if not once in a lifetime) opportunity to try to remake our City and to break the ‘log-jam’ of disinvestment that has held-back economic recovery and revitalization,” Welsh stated.

mgodin@record-journal.com203-317-2255Twitter: @Cconnbiz


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