RIVER FALLS — City Council on Tuesday, May 26, approved a loan program for small businesses and adjusted the city’s 2020 project schedule in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Local businesses negatively affected by the pandemic or the state’s Safer at Home order can apply for $5,000 or $10,000 loans to help with recovery through a $500,000 loan program.

“I think this is a great program to spread a little love during these difficult times with businesses in River Falls,” Council member Diane Odeen said.

Eligible businesses must be physically based within the city, have 25 or fewer employees and have been in operation for at least a year as of May 1.

The four-year loans have a 2% interest rate paid quarterly starting in October.

The loans are meant to supplement other available financing, such as bank loans or Small Business Association financing, according to a news release.

The program will be funded with $160,000 remaining in the city’s existing Commercial Revolving Loan Fund with a $340,000 boost from the general fund.

Applications, available on the city website, are due 5 p.m. June 5. The plan is for a committee to meet June 9 to review applications.

If funds still remain after the first round of loans, a second round is possible. The Commercial Revolving Loan Fund will resume once the recovery loan program ends, according to a staff report.

Council member Ben Plunkett suggested the money would be better spent helping out-of-work city residents, who could in turn support local businesses.

Project changes

In the interest of the city’s financial stability, department heads were tasked with identifying projects and other purchases planned for this year that could be cut or pushed back to 2021 or later.

The changes, part of the Crushing COVID-19 plan, are intended to preserve cash to help the city weather an economic downturn expected due to the pandemic. The delayed and eliminated projects will save around $1.5 million, according to a staff report.

Some highlights in the revised Capital Improvement Plan include:

  • Eliminating incentives for upgrading alleys between Main and Second streets from Elm to Division streets — $356,000
  • Delaying upgrades to City Hall council chambers — $95,000
  • Delaying the Sterling Hill disc golf course — $75,000
  • Delaying public parking lot improvements — $75,000
  • Delaying purchase of a police patrol vehicle — $40,000

City Administrator Scot Simpson said staff will be directed to stop all work on eliminated projects. They could be restarted later at City Council’s direction, but likely not until 2022 at the earliest.

The Sterling Hill disc golf course was originally on the chopping block, but Council member Sean Downing put forward an amendment to list the project — which is funded partly by donations — as delayed instead.

In other news...

  • City Council on Tuesday approved a scaled back 2020-2021 Strategic Initiatives plan to help the city with recovering from the pandemic. Among the initiatives to be delayed or reconsidered are: implementing Advanced Metering Infrastructure for water utilities; creating a library strategic plan; updating the Downtown Master Plan; and helping UW-River Falls with a new science facility and public infrastructure updates.
  • Council members gave the OK for a 50-unit housing development planned for 1300 S. Main Street to feature three “solar flowers” in the front yard. The 16-foot-tall solar energy devices that resemble flowers when panels are fully arrayed follow the sun throughout the day.
  • City Council renewed one-year liquor, beer and wine licenses. Council member Ben Plunkett put forward a series of amendments placing additional conditions on businesses to require face masks for employees and customers as well as prohibit on-site alcohol consumption and sampling due to COVID-19; however, the amendments failed to gain support, with other council members questioning if the proposed restrictions would be enforceable.