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Maryland economic recovery initiative targets vacant retail, commercial spaces

Filling vacant buildings in downtown Sykesville would make it feel more connected to the rest of the town, said Julie Della-Maria.

Filling vacant buildings in downtown Sykesville would make it feel more connected to the rest of the town, says Julie Della-Maria, executive director of the nonprofit Downtown Sykesville Connection. (Submitted Photo)

In an effort to bring business back to the state’s downtowns and main streets following COVID-19 closures, Gov. Larry Hogan on Monday announced an initiative to offer incentives to businesses to move into vacant commercial spaces.

The $25 million program, called “Project Restore,” will provide rental grants and sales tax relief rebates to businesses that open or expand into commercial or retail spaces that have been vacant for at least six months.

Businesses will be eligible for sales tax rebates of up to $250,000 per year. Emulating the tiering for the state’s More Jobs for Marylanders program, businesses in “Tier 1” counties, which includes nine counties in Western Maryland and on the Eastern shore, as well as Baltimore city and all of the state’s Opportunity Zones, are eligible for two years of rebates; businesses in the remaining counties are eligible for one.

Additionally, small businesses — those with fewer than 50 employees — will be eligible for rental subsidies of $2,500 each month for a year. All businesses applying to the program must commit to staying in the previously vacant space for a year.

“As part of the devastating toll of the pandemic, more of our downtown, Main Street, retail and commercial space across the state is vacant,” Hogan said during the announcement. “One or two empty storefronts in a small community can effect an entire town.”

Leaders in many of Maryland’s 33 main streets are encouraged by the initiative. In Sykesville, located in Carroll County, many of the vacant storefronts are on the outskirts of the downtown area, creating almost a barrier between it and nearby amenities, like a nearby park.

Julie Della-Maria, the executive director of the nonprofit Downtown Sykesville Connection, feels that if this program helped fill those vacancies, more customers would be drawn into downtown Sykesville, and the area would feel more connected to the rest of the town.

The majority of vacancies in Sykesville’s downtown didn’t arise during the pandemic, Della-Maria said. But those that existed prior to the pandemic will be much harder to fill now than they otherwise would have been because of the economic strain of COVID-19.

“I think that it’s a multifaceted way of addressing the pandemic’s consequences and actually turning the consequences into opportunities for returns on investments,” she said. “I see it as a brilliant solution to fix a problem that existed during the pandemic.”

The downtown area of Hagerstown in Western Maryland has been developing and growing over the past several years after having received designation as an official Main Street in 2014.

Jill Thompson, the town’s director of community and economic development, hopes that these grants will help the area regain the momentum it lost due to the pandemic. She anticipates the funds will help encourage entrepreneurs who are coming out of the pandemic with exciting new business ideas in mind to put down roots in Hagerstown.

Growth in the business district, she stressed, will ripple out well beyond Hagerstown’s downtown.

“The strength of regions is dependent on the strength of their core, so it’s important to focus on the downtown because when they have a strong downtown, they have a strong city, they have a strong county, they have a strong region,” she said.

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