The Dunwoody City Council on Monday discussed the possibility of raising the limit on a grant program designed to help businesses increase their ability to operate outdoors.

The council approved the Al Fresco Grant Program back on Nov. 9, 2020 as part of an economic assistance package using funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The grant was intended to assist restaurants and other businesses expand their outdoor operations during the COVID-19 pandemic by purchasing heaters and other equipment. 

“The goal of the grant was to assist restaurants and other businesses to make necessary improvements to move operations outdoors,” said Economic Development Director Michael Starling during the council’s Jan. 24 meeting. “A secondary goal was to begin transforming our older shopping centers into more vibrant and welcoming places.” 

According to the Nov. 9, 2020 city memo, $150,000 was set aside for the city to use for the Al Fresco Grant. However, Starling said that since the program started, the city has only awarded eight grants for a total of $24,000. He said in response to the lack of interest, the city began reaching out to property owners to see if those owners would be interested in applying on behalf of multiple restaurants at once. The city began talking with the Shops of Dunwoody, a shopping center located at 5484-5510 Chamblee Dunwoody Road, resulting in a master plan to renovate the entire shopping center. 

A plan of the improvements at the Shops of Dunwoody from the Dunwoody City Council meeting documents.

The Shops of Dunwoody has requested an Al Fresco Grant of about $113,000 to complete the master plan, helping a total of eight restaurants. However, the grant program in its initial form allows the city to match whatever investment the business puts in up to $5,000. Staff requested that the council change the grant program to allow for larger investments to make the shopping center’s request feasible. 

“The investments contemplated in this application are significantly larger than the individual grants we previously approved, but are in line with goals of the original program,” Starling said. 

Starling said if the council decided to up the amount of investment allowed, it would be possible to add a requirement that each business invest more than the city. 

The council seemed in favor of the idea, but wanted to have a more concrete outline of the grant requirements at its next meeting. Councilmember Tom Lambert said he thought the idea was good in principle, but he had some concerns about the master plan and the structure of the grant itself. 

“I wouldn’t want this to look like we made a sweetheart deal with one builder and perhaps neglected others,” Lambert said. “I have no opposition to upping the amounts that we’re granting, but I just would like to see it more formalized and properly advertised.” 

Councilmember Rob Price had concerns about whether this area would be the best use of the city’s funds.

“If we’re going to be changing the criteria, I think we need to take a step back and look beyond,” Price said. “There are definitely lots of areas in the city that I think could use improvements.”

Mayor Lynn Deutsch said one of the original purposes of the grant was to help businesses make it through the first winter of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, she said, now that it’s been over a year since the grant program was initially approved, the city might need to reconsider the goals of the grant.

“Maybe we need to step back a tiny bit and figure out what our goal statement is, what our objectives are,” she said. “What is our participation in the process as we give bigger sums of money?” 

The item is expected to be back before the council at its next meeting. 

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.