THUNDER BAY — The City of Thunder Bay is encouraging property owners in three core commercial areas to take advantage of its Downtown Improvement Grant program, which was expanded last year to cover up to half the cost of eligible renovations.
The program is intended to help revitalize the downtown cores, supporting the rehabilitation of storefronts and addition of residential units in the city’s north and south core downtowns, as well as Westfort’s commercial district along Frederica Street.
The program will offer a total of $234,000 in funding in 2022, with applicants eligible for a maximum of $25,000 each.
That provides direct benefits to the owners, but is intended to bring wider public benefits to the city’s economy and quality of life, said supervisor of planning services Devon McCloskey.
“We’ve been through some really tough times, and businesses and property owners are looking for support,” she said. “Our feeling is these improvements are going to benefit everyone in the city [by improving] public spaces — the residents as well as tourists and visitors.”
The program awarded $116,736 last year to 10 recipients, with grants ranging from $1,742 for signage and lighting to $25,000 to support converting two floors of new residential units at a Bay Street property.
All of the 2021 grants were awarded to north core properties, with the exception of one in Westfort — a pattern the city hopes to change as awareness of the program grows.
“We’re hopeful there will be lots more projects happening,” McCloskey said. “There have been ownership changes and new startups, and those are the types of projects that might be eligible.”
Aaron Gillingham is a booster of the program, after receiving a grant last year to help renovate the former Maier Hardware building in Westfort.
Gillingham, who also owns the nearby The Sal restaurant, plans to convert the Brown Street building into retail space, hosting a relocated East Coast Lobster and a second business yet to be announced.
The $25,000 he’s receiving will help install new windows, refinish the brick exterior, add new signage, and more (he also made investments outside of the program, like replacing the 104-year-old building’s roof).
Gillingham wasn’t enthusiastic when a colleague first mentioned the program.
“I kind of met it with the same skepticism I think a lot of building owners have [for government grants] — you know, tons of paperwork, permits, expenses, and you never know if you’re going to get approved. But the process was a lot easier than I expected.”
Applicants do have to submit detailed information including multiple quotes from contractors, but Gillingham said that’s well worth it for the support available. He estimates he spent six to eight hours putting together the application.
The four grants under the Downtown Improvement Program include:
- Planning and Building Fee Grant: Rebates the full cost of building permit and application fees
- Commercial Conversion Grant – Main Floor: Reimburses up to 50 per cent of costs to convert or improve a main floor into a commercial space
- Residential/Office Conversion Grant – Upper floors: Reimburses up to 50 per cent of costs to convert or improve a second floor into an office or residential unit
- Commercial Façade Improvement Grant: Reimburses up to 50 per cent of costs to improve commercial façades
Each grant has a $10,000 cap, and can be stacked up to $25,000.
The grants are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis until funding runs out. Applications are currently open, and must be filed before work begins.
After approval, recipients have two years to complete the work.
Those who are interested can find more information at the city’s website or by calling the planning department.
The city works closely with applicants to make the process as seamless as possible, and they aim to turn the review process around within a week, McCloskey said.
The program was overhauled in 2021 to expand eligibility and cover more costs. The previous version required a minimum investment of $10,000 by the property owner and covered only up to five per cent of total costs.
The Downtown Improvement Grants program is part of the city’s Community Improvement Plan. It is funded jointly by the city and the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Corporation.