State Street (copy)

The mix of retail and restaurants and bars on State Street has been a hot political topic in recent years.

A city grant program to support retail stores on State Street is officially live.

The program, proposed by Mayor Paul Soglin and downtown Ald. Mike Verveer and introduced to City Council last August, offers up to $50,000 in matching funds to help downtown retailers with interior and exterior shop renovations.

“I think anything the city can do to tip the scales back to independent retailers downtown is welcome,” Verveer said.

The past few years have seen increasing discussion about the changing face of State Street.

In 2014, Mayor Paul Soglin discussed a moratorium on liquor licenses for the popular street. Last year, he spurred a few related, high-profile squabbles with City Council members, including a mayoral veto of a beer license for a State Street restaurant, Mad City Frites.

The City Council overrode the veto.

According to city data, the ratio of retail businesses to bars and restaurants on State Street changed dramatically between the mid-’90s and 2014.

In 1994, retail made up about 69 percent of business on State Street, dropping to 49 percent in 2014. The presence of restaurants and bars increased from 25 percent in 1994 to 48 percent in 2014.

Verveer said the $400,000 grant program, which will be funded by a downtown tax increment financing (TIF) district, is based on the city’s façade improvement grant program.

That program, which allows business owners to apply for city funds to improve their storefront façades, has been running for about 15 years.

“We hope the same success will extend to the Retail Improvement Grant Program,” Verveer said. “Based on very early interest, I have every reason to believe it will be quite popular.”

The program was officially funded last week. Its website, cityofmadison.com/retailgrants, which will include a link to the application, will go live Monday, according to city staff.

Ruth Rohlich, business development specialist for the city, is overseeing the program. She said she’s already been in touch with four interested businesses: Community Pharmacy, 341 State St., The Soap Opera, 319 State St., Triangle Market, 302 State St., and Vom Fass, 119 State St.

Rohlich said she imagines long-term State Street renters will be the first to utilize the funds.

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“A lot of them are finding they are long overdue for some of this work,” she said. “I think we’re going to be able, in the first year, to help with a number of businesses that are already located on State Street.”

Verveer said he could envision the program, if successful, expanding to other parts of the city, including Monroe Street, Park Street or Williamson Street.

“I can’t help but draw comparisons to Willy Street and Monroe Street’s growing pains, in terms of large numbers of bars and restaurants occupying spaces formerly occupied by non food and drink establishments,” he said.

The State Street program funds are expected to last for a few years. Verveer said the city hasn’t set up plans for future funding.

He said being forced to identify a second funding source in the future would be “a good problem.”

“That would be an indication that we have a very successful program on our hands,” he said.