Randy Ford certainly would prefer giving his J. Gilligan’s Bar & Grill a bold boost in curb appeal, but playing it financially safe, he has tackled repairs and upgrades as small projects, as needed.
“This is a constant upgrade in progress,” said Ford, who established his iconic eatery and watering hole at 400 E. Abram St. in 1979.
But lately, a new grant program for Arlington downtown businesses has him happily mulling over makeover ideas. Like doing something with that long cinder block front and painted wall sign facing Abram.
“I wanted to open that up a little bit,” Ford said. “Maybe put some windows in there, or putting a garage door and a little patio out there. In my particular situation, [the grant] is something I’m looking forward to.”
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The Destination Downtown Grant Program will offer a 100 percent match up to $5,000 for property owners willing to invest in a wide variety of improvements to their downtown buildings.
Applications for the inaugural round of grants will be accepted through May 29.
Funding will be especially tight in the program’s inaugural year — just $25,000, enough to fund at least five grants, or more if applicants don’t reach for the maximum.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot of money,” said Tony Rutigliano, president and CEO of Downtown Arlington Management Corp., the nonprofit entrusted with guiding the revitalization of downtown. “But we’ve got to start somewhere.”
The funding is coming from a business improvement district, a special taxing entity that generates additional city property tax revenue from property owners within a defined district. Those funds are used exclusively for improvements within that district.
Downtown Arlington’s 400-acre district, created in 2010, encompasses the properties of about 200 owners, many of whom own multiple properties, Rutigliano said. The downtown district is roughly bordered by Cooper Street on the west, Collins Street on the east, North Street on the north and Border Street on the south.
A $10,000 grant and match alone might not cover the cost of a brand-new storefront, he said. But it could fund a combination of modest improvements — a mural or a public art piece, fresh paint, landscaping, new windows, awnings, a new sign and pedestrian street lighting.
“But if somebody has an idea that nobody else has thought of, we’re encouraging that,” Rutigliano said.
The management corporation, which attained its nonprofit status in 2006, is carrying the torch of its predecessor, Downtown Arlington Inc., a nonprofit created in 1995 to make improvements outlined in a new downtown master plan.
At the time, 30 years of city growth toward the freeways was threatening to render the downtown irrelevant, said Councilwoman Lana Wolff, a founding member of the nonprofit’s board. Her council District 5 includes the downtown.
The city had to face the question, “Do you let it turn into blight, or do you redevelop it,” Wolff said. “We had a lot of work to do.”
That work, kicked off by a city-appointed citizens committee in 1993, included developing a revitalization plan for downtown, getting existing zoning changed and creating a tax increment financing district, which, like the downtown district, generates revenues to fund improvements within a geographic area.
Rutigliano said progress has continued under his group’s watch.
“It would be hard to argue that downtown has ever been better,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of investment in downtown. Over the next two to three years, we will see about 150 million invested.”
That funding includes a new central public library; a rebuild of Abram Street to reduce the number lanes, widen sidewalks and do other pedestrian-friendly improvements; and Center 101, a $36.5 million mixed-use development to include 270 apartments, a restaurant and a parking garage.
Meanwhile, construction continues on two apartment complexes in the district totaling 400 units — 135 for student housing and the rest billed as market-rate urban residential.
The downtown grant program has been in discussion for about two years, Rutigliano said.
“The impetus was, ‘How do we make downtown more attractive?’” he said. “A lot of people are investing a lot of money.”
When Rutigliano joined the downtown group four years ago, it was promoting a federal community development block grant program for downtown businesses. The CDBG program wasn’t popular because of the many requirements and conditions in the contracts, including a minimum number of contractors who should bid on a project, how many workers they should hire and what they should be paid.
“It was so arduous,” he said. “There was so much red tape, nobody did it.”
Ford tried to apply for the federal grant to help spruce J. Gilligan’s but gave up because of the strings. “It just seems like it wasn’t viable for us,” he said.
The new grant applications are available online at www.DowntownArlington.org/grant, where they can be filled out and submitted online.
Rutigliano estimates the form can be completed within an hour, not counting time to produce cost estimates and designs.
But first, anyone interested in filing an application must submit a brief description of the project, he added — “just to let us know what you’re wanting to do.”
Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7641