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      City program to help owners improve storefronts

      COLUMBIA (WACH) -- The City of Columbia along with City Center Partnership unveiled the new Commercial Faade Improvement Program for the downtown Business Improvement District (BID), Tuesday.

      The Columbia City Council approved an incentive program to improve building facades within targeted redevelopment areas. City Center Partnership was instrumental in the early stages of the creation of this initiative and is delighted to announce that the BID will be the first target area for the program.

      The Commercial Facade Improvement Program (CFIP) will provide up to $20,000 per building as a loan forgiven over five years. Applicants must provide a match of at least 20 percent of the loan, the remaining 80 percent is paid by the City's Department of Community Development.

      Property owners as well as tenants are eligible to apply. Local leaders are banking on the face that faade improvements boost the marketability of individual business spaces as well as the overall business district.

      "The revitalization of Main Street is, quite frankly, a core tenet of how we will determine if we have been successful as leaders," Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said as the plan was unveiled Tuesday.

      City officials say it's time to act on this plan that's been in the making for over a decade and to make Main Street the city center, but some opponents disagree.

      "This is not the best use of our tax dollars," counters Joe Azar, owner of Upstairs Audio in Five Points. "We need to solve the problems of the city first before we start putting paint over them."

      Azar, once a mayoral candidate, says he took advantage of a similar program years ago, but points out right now potential businesses are more interested in public safety issues, taxes and a business friendly atmosphere.

      "Window dressing is one thing," Azar explains. "We've seen Main Street. How many times has it been torn up and they're still looking for business? We've made it look beautiful but people aren't coming. Right now the business community wants solid gains. We'll fix our own places if we're making money. But we need business."

      In some cases, business is going away. SCANA moved its operations out of the Palmetto Center to Cayce in 2009 after more than two decades downtown. In late 2010, announced plans to set up shop in Lexington County and the potential for more than a thousand jobs.

      Some were handing out flyers at Tuesday's unveiling of the Facade Improvement Program alerting business owners and contractors to "more free money." However, that's not the case. The program is funded by tax dollars.

      Do you think taxpayers should pay to improve the buildings of Columbia business owners? Vote in the poll below and be sure to leave a comment to tell us more.