City Plans Disbursement of Business Relief Funds Next Week, Seeks More Money

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Distribution of the $200,000 City Council approved to assist downtown businesses affected by the May 28 explosion at the Realty Tower should be underway by the end of next week, city officials said Tuesday afternoon.

Council members approved the funds for the Economic Rapid Response Program during a special meeting June 20. On July 3, the city’s Board of Control approved an agreement with the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber Foundation to serve as the fiscal agent for the fund.

A news release issued by the city said the chamber foundation would “be able to accept donations from private individuals and organizations earmarked for the business relief effort” but offered few additional details regarding how the fund would operate.

Nikki Posterli, chief of staff to Mayor Jamael Tito Brown and director of the department of community planning and economic development, and economic development director Stephanie Gilchrist shared details and outlined other initiatives aimed at downtown businesses during a meeting Tuesday of the Council’s community planning and economic development committee Tuesday.

“We’re kind of building the car as we’re driving it,” Posterli told committee members. City officials previously had come to the committee about assisting struggling businesses citywide. But after the explosion, officials recognized the need to shift focus specifically on downtown. 

The intent is to use the $200,000 to “seed” an initiative that would assist downtown businesses, which over the past five years have had to cope with the impact of downtown infrastructure projects, the pandemic, and now the aftermath of the explosion, Posterli said. City officials are in the process of finalizing the list of downtown businesses that would be eligible for assistance, focusing on those that rely on foot traffic, such as restaurants.

That process should be complete by Monday, after which the city will reach out to those businesses to distribute the funds, Gilchrist said.

Only businesses operating before Jan. 1, 2023, and that are still in operation would be eligible for the money, Posterli said.

“If you’re closed, you don’t qualify,” she added. “We need open businesses that are relying on this right now.” Potentially funds could be available later to help restart businesses but the focus of these funds is on sustaining businesses operating now. 

After the initial grants – and as more money is added to the fund – businesses will be asked to provide additional information to determine how much more they might receive so the city can be “equitable” and “fair” with future disbursements, Gilchrist said. 

City and chamber officials have met with local “philanthropic partners” about adding money to the fund, Posterli said. She and other city leaders met with U.S. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, when he was in town Monday to meet with those affected by the explosion. They discussed possible federal funding; state funding also is being explored, she reported. 

Sixth Ward Councilwoman Anita Davis suggested another potential source of funds, $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan funds originally allocated for a proposed safety campus. 

Other initiatives being discussed include assisting downtown businesses with developing a marketing plan to assist them in the near term, Posterli said.

“Time is of the essence. This money was needed yesterday,” fourth Ward councilman Mike Ray said. “If we don’t put more back into treatment, we’re going to be using it for funeral planning.” 

Ray also shared the frustrations being expressed by members of the downtown business community. He stressed the city needs to have a communication plan and officials need to meet one-on-one with business owners to tell them what the city is doing to help.  

Business owners are getting updates from the news media, First Ward Councilman Julius Oliver said. Last week they wanted an idea of when they should expect to receive the funds, he said. 

“As we were working through this, there was nothing to tell them last week,” Posterli said. “I knew we had the money. I knew we wanted to do something.” She also said she and Gilchrist regularly speak with downtown business owners. 

“Communication is bad,” Oliver countered. “What I hear most of all is that there is no communication.”

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