San Antonio pilot program not enough to save St. Mary’s

The Small Business Construction Mitigation Pilot Program will take off in June, but city staff and council members discussed the initiative during an Economic and Workforce Development Committee meeting Friday morning, December 16. What’s in the program? The program will use $310,000 of the $400,000 for marketing and promotion of small businesses. That improved includes signage, targeted mailers, outreach, events, and leveraging the city’s Web Presence Program supported by COVID-19 recovery funds. The web presence essentially provides resources to expand a small business’ presence on the internet. Here’s what the remaining $90,000 will fund: $50,000 toward public messaging about ongoing and future construction to generate excitement. $15,000 for a small business toolkit that provides important contacts, ideas for mitigating disruption, connections with community partners, access to city programs, and technical assistance. $25,000 to build the city’s partnership with map services app Waze that relies on community input to inform people of traffic and closures. The project will target 13 active streets around San Antonio, including the popular nightlife strip on North St. Mary’s Street, South Alamo Street, and the Broadway Corridor. The city hopes to implement this pilot in June 2023. The pathway in front of Midnight Swim on St. Mary’s Street is barricaded off and leaves one path with loose gravel for pedestrians. Augie Cortez, owner of Augie’s BBQ on Broadway, says this action from the city is too little and too late. “This ship has sailed two years ago,” Cortez said at the meeting. “This should have been presented before COVID began.” Even so, Cortez says this program doesn’t do enough especially for businesses. He says the city is throwing “nickels and dimes” at business owners for more signs saying that businesses are open, when the problem lies in access to these businesses. How does he make sense? Cortez asked the committee. Bond-funded improvements to Broadway have been going on for more than two years and those improvements have recently been stalled. The delay comes from a dispute between the city and Texas over who owns a 2-mile stretch of road and if the city can reduce lanes on Broadway for bike lanes and sidewalks. Aaron Peña, owner of The Squeezebox on St. Mary’s Street, says his bar has been forced to close a few times because of the ongoing construction. When a waterline busted a few months ago, Peña says he had to close his doors on a Saturday—the busiest night for Squeezebox. That is a loss of $5,000 in sales plus the money he paid bartenders who couldn’t work that night. st. Mary’s has been faced with alternating closures along its road for nearly two years for another bond-funded road and pedestrian improvement project. It has been hit with delays that is pushing the project into 2023 in an area that is already facing parking issues. “Essentially it’s $400,000 being washed down the toilet,” Peña says. “Instead of giving that to businesses, they’re trying to basically relay that to marketing, signage and all kinds of stuff that doesn’t help us.” Council members who are on the committee agreed that the resources and funding were not being used to help the business owners directly. “My concern is that this is $400,000 on something that our small business organizations are already doing, and how can we shift towards that immediate assistance,” said councilwoman Teri Castillo. This is the view of St. Mary’s Street on Friday outside of The Squeezebox. Courtesy of Aaron Pena What can be done? Cortez said the city needs to stop granting permits and approving construction contracts while other work is still ongoing. But he said that the solution is much more simple: financial relief for utilities, rent, and taxes in the form of grants. “That’s the easiest way out to help us survive,” he says. Peña says that money could go to 20 other businesses in the form of $10,000 grants that could help businesses affected by construction with rent and paying their employees. “They’re just slapping us in the face because here we are struggling to pay rent, struggling to make payroll, and they still haven’t given us a dime,” he says. Money like that can come from the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, which is a fund made up of withheld tax revenue to go toward promoting growth. Castillo brought this up during the meeting, calling out a disparity in the businesses that benefit from a TIRZ. “We have multi-million, billion-dollar businesses with their handout — they get it,” Castillo said. “And then we have these small businesses where this is their livelihood, and they’re having to come to meeting after meeting after meeting, and then go to work.”

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