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Lockport approves incubator for small-business grants

Searching for ways to bolster downtown business, the city's development agency Thursday approved an application for funds to start a grant program for small businesses and agreed to increase its contribution to the Main Street promotion organization.

R. Charles Bell, city director of planning and development, plans to apply to the state Office of Community Renewal for about $150,000 to start a microenterprise grant program.

If the funding is received, a board of local business figures would govern which firms would obtain the grants.

The money would be available only for businesses in the central business district, Bell said.

"We want to look at partnering it with some low-interest loans," Bell said when he broached the same idea Wednesday to the Common Council. "This program would require some entrepreneurial training."

"We want to make sure [the criteria] are tightened up so it's not a cash giveaway," said Harry Sicherman, economic development consultant to the Greater Lockport Development Corp.

The Niagara County Industrial Development Agency has operated a similar microenterprise program for several years, but its funding to small business comes in the forms of loans only.

It also has a training program in business management for would-be loan applicants.

"We could hook up with Niagara County or start one of our own," Sicherman said.

Meanwhile, the development corporation board agreed to a three-year renewal of its funding commitment to Lockport Main Street Inc.

The corporation will contribute $17,500 a year, a $5,000 increase from its previous three-year pledge, which expires this year.

Lockport Main Street Program Director Heather Peck, also a GLDC board member, left the room as the rest of the board discussed her program in a 45-minute closed session.

Afterward, Mayor Michael W. Tucker said, "I think Heather has done a remarkable job. It's [the development corporation's] job to bring businesses into the business district, and it's Lockport Main Street's job to make them successful."

Peck said her program will continue under the auspices of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Western Erie Canal Alliance, which set up the program three years ago and offered advice, not cash.

The city and the GLDC have been paying $12,500 a year, and the Grigg-Lewis Foundation supplied $25,000 a year. Lockport Main Street's budget this year is $64,000, almost half of which is Peck's $30,000 salary.

Tucker said he will ask the Council to increase the city's contribution as the development corporation did.

Peck submitted a draft of a five-year strategic plan for Main Street promotion, prepared by the Bergmann Associates consulting firm, which was paid $5,000 by her organization.

Lockport Main Street has applied for a state grant to improve five buildings with five different owners, but Peck has said those won't be identified unless the grant is approved.

Peck said Halloween and Easter promotions involving giveaways for children at downtown stores have been the most effective ideas she's had to generate foot traffic.

A Christmas shopping event in the Palace Theater last December also was a hit, but a St. Patrick's Day promotion fell short of her hopes.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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