In September, the City of Waterloo announced they were accepting new Uptown Façade Community Improvement Program applications through Oct. 18, 2021. The program offers small businesses in Uptown Waterloo matching grants of up to $10,000 to update a building’s façade, improve the streetscape, or conserve heritage features.
The City of Waterloo initially launched the program in 2015. Justin McFadden, director of economic development for the City of Waterloo, said the program was designed to support businesses affected by construction for the ION light rail transit system.
“We knew it was going to be challenging times ahead for Uptown businesses with all of the disruptions that were about to take place. So we felt that Uptown needed a little bit of a boost,” McFadden said.
Business owners take part in the program through an application process with the City of Waterloo. To qualify for the program, the business needs to be located in the Uptown area, and they also need to submit cost estimates for the improvement project. In addition to the $10,000 matching grant, business owners can apply for an additional $5,000 matching grant for designated heritage properties. Corner properties qualify for up to a $15,000 matching grant to cover the additional street frontage.
“Pretty much anybody that’s got some new signage or fresh looking signage along King Street or the side streets has probably taken advantage of the program. For projects that were $20,000, the City would cover $10,000 of that. That’s a reasonable amount of money to do a nice upgrade on the front,” McFadden said.
McPhail’s Cycle & Sport, The Crumby Cookie Dough Co., The Princess Cinemas, UNI+KONCEPT and Ethel’s Lounge are a few of the businesses that have taken advantage of the program.
McFadden said the City saw an increase in businesses using the program in 2016 and 2017, a period of significant construction in the Uptown core that drew the ire of many business owners. Princess Cinemad owner John Tutt said that the constant construction felt like getting knocked down again and again.
“First it was the LRT, then the streetscape project. The perception was that the area wasn’t approachable,” Tutt said.
There were ten grants issued in 2016, and 23 grants being issued in 2017. Over 40 businesses have used the program to make improvements, from restoring building frontage to new signage.
Tutt used one grant to retrofit the Princess Twin marquee with LED lights to reduce energy usage. This year, Tutt applied for a grant to update the façade of the Princess Original cinema—another example McFadden said represents the benefits of the program.
“It’s been a very successful program. By the end of this year, the City will have spent over $550,000 towards façade improvements for Uptown businesses. Those businesses have spent at least that much too. That’s driven well over a million dollars spent in investment for Uptown Waterloo during the last five years,” McFadden said.
Tracy Van Kalsbeek, executive director of Uptown Waterloo BIA, said the façade improvements are a welcome part of the City of Waterloo’s efforts to enhance its uptown core.
“Over the past few years, Uptown’s streetscape has significantly changed for the better. On top of the existing green spaces and trail systems, we now have wider sidewalks for patios, separated bike lanes and unique and programmable LED lighting around our trees. All of these initiatives have boosted Uptown’s vibrancy, making it a destination for many,” Van Kalsbeek said.
The Uptown core has seen a number of changes due to construction, aging business owners and the pandemic. These changes have resulted in the loss of several longtime businesses including Harmony Lunch, Starlight, and Chainsaw.
This summer, Angie’s Kitchen also closed after 60 years of business, which put the fear of change into many local minds. The Uptown Façade Community Improvement Program is a way for the city to help business owners attract new customers and keep their buildings in good condition.
Tenille Bonoguore, City of Waterloo Ward 7 councillor looks at the program as a way to prolong the life of buildings and reduce the need for new construction.
“ We’ve got old buildings, and anyone who has an older home knows that old buildings can be a fair bit of work. You can compare the before and the after and you can definitely see that it’s put a lot of life in the building. For me, it helps with our environmental goals as well. If we look after what we have, that means we don’t have to knock it down and build a new one,” Bonoguore said.
Alex Kinsella is a freelance content marketer and writer based in Waterloo Region, Ontario. He's behind the TL;WR newsletter–Waterloo Region's weekly events newsletter. He's worked with some of Canada's most well known tech companies in roles including customer success, development, product management, PR, social media and marketing. Alex has contributed to publications including BetaKit, Grand Magazine and more.