Houston small business owners question city’s use of CARES Act funds to renovate City Hall

Out of $1.1 million, the city approved more than $800,000 to go to projects at City Hall
Published: Oct. 28, 2020 at 6:15 PM AKDT
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HOUSTON, Alaska (KTUU) -The City of Houston received more than $1.1 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding from the federal government, and most of it will be spent on City Hall.

Earlier this month, Mayor Virgie Thompson and the Houston City Council approved more than $860,000 for an addition to the building and renovation to the existing facility. That’s more than 75% of the federal funding.

Several small business owners said they don’t feel supported and question why the city is spending money on itself instead of helping the local economy.

The Triple J Roadhouse used to be prominent in the old Houston Lodge on the Parks Highway as you drove through Houston. Owner Jessica Briles said the cost of maintaining the large building was too much, especially with the financial hit because of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s one reason she recently moved her business to Wasilla. She said another reason was the lack of help from the city.

“That’s not going to encourage growth for people to move there if they don’t feel like the council members and the mayor listen to what the community wants,” Briles said.

Triple J Roadhouse was one of 17 Houston businesses that received a $4,500 grant from the CARES funding. While Briles is grateful for the money, she said that amount doesn’t go very far.

“It doesn’t even pay the rent, when we were out in Houston at least. Here it would, but $4,500, at the Houston Lodge, our heating was $700, the fuel heat bill was $700 in the wintertime,” Briles said.

A-1 Signs is another business that received a grant. Owner Barbara Smith received an additional grant for her Alaska Frontier Realty business too.

“Honestly, if there was any way I could get out of Houston right now, I would. I absolutely would,” Smith said.

She’s not happy with the city’s decision to spend a majority of the funds on City Hall.

“Nine-hundred thousand dollars, almost, to the City of Houston for a building and less than $200,000 to the people. And the people don’t have food and gas, they’re suffering. It’s completely wrong and complete misuse of the CARES Act funds,” she said.

There are two projects the council approved for City Hall: a $620,209 addition and $245,451 worth of renovations. The line items for the renovation project include $54,891 to add four rooms to city hall, $24,113 for three lighted flag poles and $7,056 for relocating furniture to accommodate work.

The city initially slated $280,000 to go to small business relief grants in an ordinance passed in July. Since only 17 businesses applied and were each given $4,500, an extra $203,500 was not disbursed to businesses.

On Oct. 16, the council moved the money into its City Resiliency and Recovery fund. At that council meeting, Thompson talked about why she wanted the flag poles.

“I’m pretty proud of my city. I’m proud of the fact we were declared a Purple Heart City, pretty proud of the fact I’m a U.S. citizen and I’m also an Alaska resident," Thompson said. “And I thought if we were able to use these funds to make this a very nice place to pull up and see and create security at that end of the building as well.”

She also said the city needs more room for voters during election seasons and the addition was a good use of the money.

“Those balanced funds need to go somewhere,” Thompson said at the meeting. “So we started thinking about what other things we could use that would make our expansion for your employees and you as residents safer when you come here.”

Thompson declined to do an on-camera interview, and she said didn’t need to justify spending that was approved by the city’s attorney. Based on community feedback, she removed the line item $24,113 for the three flag poles. Now the renovation funds for city hall come to about $218,000.

Briles and Smith are upset that less than half the money slotted for small businesses was given out, and the rest was moved to the city projects.

“This is not about my business getting more money. This is about, there are a lot of residents in Houston that have been affected too,” Briles said. “In Houston, you’re already dealing with a community where people live below the poverty line. What are they going to do for heat? The PFDs were significantly lower and they’re already gone.”

They understand the need for some upgrades to City Hall, especially to make it more COVID-19 compliant. But they said spending nearly a million dollars is too much when people in town are suffering.

“This is not a witch hunt, I’m not trying to take anything down. I’m just saying a wrong decision as made, it happens. Now correct it, make it the right decision. Stop the addition. Certainly, stop the additional repairs,” Smith said.

They’re concerned a lack of support may push more businesses to leave town which could leave Houston residents with fewer options in the future.

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