City Commission approves $12,000 in TIF funds for downtown group

City Commissioners approved up to $12,000 of downtown tax increment financing funds for the Downtown Development Partnership to support their operations for fiscal years 2020 and 2021.

That funding will be matched by about $8,500 per year in partner contributions.

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The TIF funds will be used to pay for membership to the National Main Street Center and International Downtown Association; conference registrations; and housing, maintenance and additional content to the Explore Downtown website.

The DDP “serves as the coordinating body for downtown development,” according to the staff report.

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Its members include NeighborWorks Great Falls, the Great Falls Development Authority, the Great Falls Business Improvement District, the Downtown Great Falls Association, the City of Great Falls, Great Falls Public Schools, the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, Neighborhood Council 7, the City of Great Falls Parking Advisory Commission and Historic Preservation Advisory Commission, Cascade County, and other downtown advocates.

The DDP uses its membership contributions and grant funding for downtown projects such as the current wayfinding planning, downtown promotion in the Great Falls Livability magazine and the traffic signal box art project.

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In fiscal year 2018, the commission approved $10,000 in TIF funds to the DDP for creation of the Explore Downtown website, National Main Street membership and conference registration.

In fiscal year 2019, the commission approved $5,000 in TIF funds to the DDP that was primarily used for conference attendance.

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The TIf funds can be used to support the DDP, under state law, for “administrative costs associated with the management of the urban renewal areas or targeted economic development district.”

Tax increment financing districts are designated areas of the city where the base taxes on properties go into the general fund, but the tax revenue generated by improvements to properties in the district go into a fund that is used to fund public improvements in the district with the idea of spurring development.

When a district expires, those funds go back into the general fund. If the district wasn’t in place, those funds would be in the general fund.

When the downtown TIF was established in 2012, the commission also adopted the Downtown Urban Renewal Plan, which references the Downtown Master Plan, which includes strategies for the redevelopment of the downtown core. One of those strategies was to “identify and support an organization to lead and champion downtown revitalization. The DDP was created to fill this role and has been successful in fostering new development and redevelopment downtown and implementing the goals, objectives and strategies identified in the DMP,” according to the staff report.

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“The DDP has very limited funding options to support the organization’s operational expenses.The DDP prefers to use grant funding for projects that have an impact on the physical development of downtown. As a result, it makes sense to augment member dues with a small amount of TIF funding to cover organizational expenses such as memberships, training, and web site development,” staff wrote in their report.

The DDP has previously used some TIF funding to cover its liability insurance costs, but the city’s outside TIF counsel has advised that it’s not an allowable expense.

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Commissioner Rick Tryon said he’d be interested in hearing back from the DDP members what they learn at the conferences.

Last year, Kellie Pierce of the Downtown Great Falls Association and Joan Redeen of the Business Improvement District presented at the National Main Street Conference in Seattle. The Electric tagged along and reported from the conference.

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During that conference, City Planning Director Craig Raymond noted a common theme among the Great American Main Street Award winners, which was that all three had a person or agency focused on economic development in their downtowns.

After returning, the attendees and the DDP continued those discussions and have since created a downtown development officer position, which was filled earlier this year. The funding for that position is split between the BID and the Great Falls Development Authority.

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Tryon said he supported the funding but wanted a more detailed breakdown of the expenses in the future and asked that the DDP open their contracted services for competitive bids.

Brett Doney of the GFDA, and a member of the DDP, said “downtown projects are challenging,” but that momentum is gaining downtown.

He said that the city has helped every step of the way and “I think we’re just getting started.”