Milford's historic downtown district faces two major issues going forward: how the city can earn the same Downtown Revitalization grant it was denied last year, and how can businesses return to sustainable levels of businesses as health restrictions lessen six months into a pandemic.
Those are both pressing issues that Milford city council members, and Mayor Patrick Kelley, are tasked with solving.
Milford officials compiled a proposal for a Downtown Revitalization grant last year, which could have meant a $400,000 investment from the State of Nebraska in infrastructure alone. More than half of the grant's applicants were denied, including Milford.
So at the city's Aug. 4 council meeting Kelley and officials put their heads together on what could be done to increase chances on receiving that grant this year. Seward County Chamber and Development Partnership President and CEO Jonathan Jank spoke about the process of attaining the grant and told the council it was smart of the city to move into Phase 2 of the process. The City of Seward, Jank noted, has collected over $5 million to multiple businesses through that grant.
“It helps your downtown go from good to great,” Jank said in the meeting.
So Milford officials committed to another proposal. And since part of the rejection letter the city received cited a lack of community enthusiasm for the project, Kelley's tried to embolden the community's part in the process.
“We're trying to strengthen our vision of what we're able to accomplish,” Kelley said. “We want to build a more attractive environment to bring business. Our hope is that we can just create the vision that can be more of a destination for our community, as well as surrounding area that want to be attracted to that area, in that area, that help us economically.”
Part of the grant functions to help business maintain their store fronts. Something as simple as replacing a broken window. It can also be used for signage to draw more attention to the store. The grant could also aid the city when it comes to lighting, water lines and street maintenance.
Kelley's invited the public to speak at council meetings and has enlisted help of certain community members to relay public input.
“We'll continue to work with owners and leaders in the community to identify areas of improvement,” Kelley said. “We want to bring it into a community project.”
Revitalization in downtown Milford next year would mark a new beginning for some of the businesses that went through the tough times during the harshest public health restrictions brought by the coronavirus pandemic.
Most local establishments lost money. Pizza Kitchen downtown closed entirely and, as of Aug. 24, finally reopened its lunch buffet, a major economic driver. The Dragonfly Cafe changed ownership right before the pandemic began, causing it to close for weeks before a grand re-opening. Main Street Market expanded its building before a confirmed cases of coronavirus from a staff member forced the store into quarantine. That was before Dollar General opened, which has taken some business away.
As a way of helping local businesses, Milford City Council members approved the Triple Impact Match Event (TIME) gift card match program at a special meeting on April 21. For every $1 a person spent on a gift card to a local business, it was matched by both the Seward County Legacy Fund and the Milford Citizen Advisory Review Committee. That, essentially, tripled revenue from gift cards.
“All businesses that took part in our TIME promotion appreciated that and it provided economic relief in the roughest period,” Kelley said. “I'd pushed hard to get as many businesses involved, which included Pleasant Dale and Beaver Crossing in that promotion.
“That allowed our businesses to see economic relief to remain operational.”
Those downtown businesses have seen increases in profits once again, which continue to raise with the easing of health restrictions.
“It's been amazing to see how much business has been coming and going through Main Street Market,” Kelley said.
Once Dragonfly reopened, the new ownership broadened menu, and takeout, offerings to match its hot and cold coffee drinks selection. Kelley said that's been a positive for the community and has strengthened downtown.
Pizza Kitchen, one of more popular restaurants in Milford, reopening its lunch serve-yourself buffet brought an energy as much as a revenue stream with it.
“Just in the conversations that I've had, the local businesses are grateful to be open and operation and doing the things we need to do,” Kelley said. “With Pizza Kitchen, I know they were waiting anxiously to get that buffet portion up and going because it's one of their main contributors. I know they've been waiting for a while to get that back up and running. Now there's some energy there.”