Riverside trustees on Dec. 17 voted unanimously to allow the Riverside Economic Development Commission to offer local businesses cash incentives to undertake projects that can help them navigate the COVID-19 crisis as the pandemic drags into its 10th month.

Meanwhile, elected officials also appeared interested in helping out businesses, albeit symbolically, by possibly waiving 2021 business license fees. And if the pandemic’s grip on the region continues into spring, officials may also consider extending its waiver of liquor license fees for local restaurants and bars.

The Riverside Economic Development Commission’s incentive program is being funded by postponing the installation of a village gateway sign at First and Forest avenues and using those dollars to help businesses instead.

Unless the village board decides to appropriate more money for the program, it’ll be somewhat modest – the gateway sign was expected to cost $8,000 – but officials say that even a small amount of money might be the difference between a business moving ahead with a project or postponing it.

And unlike past village incentive programs, which focused on physical improvements to facades, windows and signs, the types of initiatives qualifying for an incentive in 2021 are pretty broad.

“We’re looking for them to come to us and we’ll see which projects will give us the most bang for our buck,” said Riverside Community Development Director Sonya Abt, who serves as the staff liaison to the Economic Development Commission.

The money can’t be used for personnel operating a business or utility expenses, but apart from those kinds of ongoing expenses, the village is open, Abt said.

Implementing online ordering and payment systems, improving business websites, purchasing outdoor dining equipment or installing plastic barriers between seating areas are some examples of the types of initiatives that might qualify.

“Sometimes small [amount of financial help] can make a difference,” Abt said. “Maybe balanced with PPP loans or Small Business Administration loans a business may have gotten, maybe this is something that can help them with the next step.

“We want to help them make it through the rest of the pandemic and position them to be even stronger in the future.”

The incentive is open to any retail, personal service or foodservice business in the downtown or Harlem Avenue districts. And the incentive is for new initiatives, not ones that have already been paid for.

Those businesses applying for the incentive can receive a reimbursement of up to 50 percent of the total project budget. Applications, the first round of which will be due in to the village by Jan. 15, must indicate how the project will help the business operate during the COVID-19 pandemic and how it will help the business succeed after it’s over.

If funds remain available after the first round, the village will continue to accept applications and review them bimonthly.

Applications will also be judged on any aesthetic impact the project will make and how well it fits with the goals of Riverside’s downtown comprehensive plan.

“After discussing it with [Economic Development] Commissioners, we decided to put it out there and see if there’s assistance we can provide,” Abt said. “We didn’t want to pigeonhole businesses too much.”

Abt said the applications would be reviewed and participants chosen by the Economic Development Commission, probably during a special meeting called for that purpose in late January or early February.

As for waiving business license fees for 2021, village trustees appeared amenable to that suggestion at their Dec. 3 meeting. At $100 annually, the fee would be a minor savings for local businesses, which must renew licenses by Jan. 1.

Trustees did not address the issue at their meeting on Dec. 17, but Village President Ben Sells told the Landmark afterward that he would recommend the waiver.

A more substantial benefit for some businesses would be a continuation of the liquor license fee waiver adopted by the village board during the early weeks of the pandemic this spring. Liquor licenses don’t have to be renewed until May 1, 2021, so there’s still time to see how the pandemic plays out.

“As long as we’re under the [state imposed] mitigations that we’re under, I would like to do everything we can to help our businesses and especially our restaurants, because they’re really struggling right now,” said Village President Ben Sells. 

“Let’s hope that some of the good news we’re starting to hear about the vaccines might take effect by then. And then maybe, God willing, by April or May, maybe we’ll all be going out to eat again.”