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Businesses can borrow money for going green
Loans could be beneficial to downtown buildings
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Owners of Gainesville's downtown buildings could be seeing a green revival.

City council members and Main Street advisors learned about some of the statewide grant and loan programs that help businesses start energy-efficient improvements, and they hope downtown business owners will take advantage.

In a workshop held by the Georgia Cities Foundation, officials talked about energy audits and building renovations that save utility dollars with insulation, lighting and weatherization changes.

"We're shifting energy use to think about energy efficiency," said Robert Reed, director of sustainable communities design for Southface, an Atlanta company that helps businesses to make sustainability changes. "It's fun to see that 30 percent energy savings on your investments, which is easy to get with old buildings that have been neglected. Most of these things are easy to do and aren't high tech."

Funded by a federal Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority grant, the state's Green Communities Fund is a new revolving loan program that provides $10,000-$250,000 loans for energy improvements to businesses in a downtown area. Gainesville City Council members and officials from Athens, Toccoa, Dahlonega and Royston asked questions to see if they could benefit.

"This is a great program that will help businesses, and it'll help the environment as well. It's also a good use of the stimulus money that will last over time in a sustainable fund," Mayor Ruth Bruner said. "There are a lot of old buildings that could qualify on the square, so now the changes will depend on each owner."

Main Street manager Angela Thompson attended the meeting so she could take the details back to downtown business owners.

"This information is extremely important but sometimes it can get so overwhelming. Today was about simplifying and streamlining the important parts so I can go back and inform everyone," she said. "Several businesses have expressed interest in what kinds of programs are available to them to remodel and update their buildings in a sustainable way."

The cost-saving incentives could also help promote one of Bruner's long-term goals for downtown — create loft housing above the businesses.

"This could help develop more energy efficient housing, especially with repairs in heating and air units," she said. "Anything we can do to help promote the idea to developers is great."

As a prerequisite for the loan, applicants first undergo a comprehensive energy audit to identify ways the business can improve efficiency in the building. This could include insulation, lighting retrofits, reflective roofing, weather sealing, duct sealing, high efficiency air units, motion detectors and solar thermal hot water heaters.

"A good audit will point out what additional ways you're losing money, not just the inefficiency of your (heating/cooling) system, but behavioral changes that you can't finance," said Chris Hidden of the Georgia Cities Foundation. "This could include how many employees you have, the average customers per week and the number of computers in the building. It's a good opportunity to have an expert take a good hard look at how the building is used."

Applicants then find bids for the changes and apply for the loan, outlining how the investment will meet a minimum of 20 percent in energy savings or show a combined return on investment for 10 years or more.

Though ideas for Gainesville's downtown buildings are in the early stages, Main Street Market owner Deb Harkrider is excited about the possibilities.

"I'm hoping for two of my buildings to go more green and to save money. I'm going to have an energy audit for sure because I know I need to do things such as weather sealing," said Harkrider, also chairwoman of the Main Street Advisory Board. "I try to go to these type of information sessions so when a new business comes to town, I'm informed and can pass on the information. It makes a difference when people are thinking about where to locate a business, and having this available gives us more to offer as a downtown."