The Mobile City Council on Tuesday approved funding for an emergency grant program for some small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the council unanimously approved the $500,000 needed to make payouts to the roughly 180 businesses already approved for the grants, Councilman Joel Daves was the only dissenter on an amendment that would, in effect, extend the application deadline until all of the money is expended.
Of the 346 applicants for the Ignite Mobile grant program, only 182 have been approved, Civic Engagement Director Anitra Henderson said. The program was open to business owners who had a current business license with the city and had remained closed due to Gov. Kay Ivey’s April 28 “Safer at Home” order and hadn’t received any other form of relief, either through Small Business Administration loans or unemployment. Restaurant owners, specifically, were not eligible.
Councilors took issue with the application deadline passing on May 8, four days before members could even vote to approve funding for the program. Councilman C.J. Small said he suspects some business owners may have waited for council action before applying for the money, but now the deadline is closed and they can’t.
“I have some issues with that,” Small said. “The council has not approved the money for it.”
Executive Director of Finance Paul Wesch said the city has received enough applications to spend all of the $500,000 appropriated for the program. Those businesses already approved for the grants have gone through a vast majority of the funding already, he said.
“We don’t have a really good read on how close we are,” he said. “Maybe $400,000 or so.”
Every eligible business was contacted through email using information provided on its business license application. Henderson added that the deadline of May 8 was on that initial paperwork. The grant application itself, however, did not include information about the deadline.
In addition to reopening the application process until all the $500,000 was spent, the council amendment asked for weekly updates on which businesses are approved and which are denied and an explanation as to why.
Daves said allowing the deadline to reopen was “unfair to the other people” who applied, were approved and will receive the grant funding.
“I think it’s unfair to the people who acted responsibly and got their applications in on time,” he said. “We’re just ignoring the rules arbitrarily.”
Mayor Sandy Stimpson said when creating an amount for the grants, the city didn’t know how quickly the initial funding would be “used up.” He and councilors seemed open to a second round of funding for impacted small businesses, but if money is added to the program, the action will have to be re-advertised and another public hearing would have to be called, in accordance with state law.
Council President Levon Manzie asked if there was demographic information on the applicants and those who received the grants.
“I think it’s important to understand if we’re going to expend public money we know where the money is being expended and in what communities the money is being expended,” Manzie said.
City attorney Ricardo Woods told councillors the city doesn’t keep that kind of information on business license holders.
“That’s something we can look at,” he said.
In other business, the council delayed a vote on an appeal brought by Buzz Jordan, an attorney and owner of a building at 401 Dauphin Street, of a previous Planning Commission decision to deny his application for a 750-person occupancy load for a proposed music and entertainment venue.
Jordan argued that since the initial appeal of his project in 2014, the Planning Commission has allowed several buildings in a similar downtown district to have occupancies of more than 100, which is allowed by right through the city’s zoning ordinance. Included in those approvals, Jordan said, was a 600-person occupancy at The Steeple. Because of this, he called the commission’s most recent denial of his project “arbitrary and precious,” thus meeting the strict guidelines for the council to overturn it.
Jerry Speegle, an attorney representing the board of directors for the Mattress Factory condominiums, argued that unlike The Steeple and Soul Kitchen, Jordan’s project was directly across Dauphin Street from a large concentration of residents.
“You have to look at who’s around The Steeple,” Speegle said. “I don’t recall a substantial number of residents there. This is about residents and the impact on their lives.”
The 100-person occupancy limit on a building in the district, regardless of its size, is also arbitrary, Jordan told councilors.
Despite concessions made by Jordan and developer Tom Townsend, like elimination of a rooftop bar component, a guaranteed police presence and a reduced occupancy request, residents are still concerned over noise and traffic, Speegle said.
“My folks were here first,” he said referring to Mattress Factory residents. “They’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into their condominiums.”
Answering to concerns over property values, Townsend compared the project to the 930 Club in Washington, D.C., or the Metro in Chicago. In both cases, residential property that sprang up after those venues opened have increased in value. In D.C., near the 930 Club, Townsend said residential property is selling for close to $600 per square foot. In downtown Mobile, it’s closer to $160 per square foot.
The Archdiocese of Mobile, which is headquartered right behind 401 Dauphin Street, is against the project, Vicar General the Rev. William Skoneki told councilors in a Zoom-enabled public hearing.
Skoneki told councilors the proposed venue would be too close to both the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and the Cathedral Arms facility. While concerts are put on at Cathedral Square and at The Steeple, Skoneki argued that those are almost all over by 10 p.m., whereas Jordan’s venture would let out after midnight.
While the developers of 401 Dauphin Street have promised to work with the church to schedule events around weddings and other masses at the cathedral, Skoneki said that was “unenforceable.”
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