If Tom Collard has anything to say about it, small-business development in downtown Meadville is about to get a bit easier.

A downtown businessman himself with two retail shops in Park Avenue’s @ the Bank, Collard has been appointed to a newly created volunteer position designed to promote the renovation and occupancy of core city structures by new and existing businesses by assisting potential developers and re-developers in identifying and complying with applicable laws, rules and regulations.

While his official title is ombudsperson, “I look at it more as a facilitator,” Collard said. “That’s the approach I’m going to take.”

Based on a suggestion by the Make It Meadville Committee, a group of volunteers that has been working for several years to help the city gain designation as a recognized — and funded — participant in the nationwide Main Street Program, the new position was approved by both Meadville City Council and Meadville Redevelopment Authority during recent weeks. The selection of the individual to fill the position was left up to the Make It Meadville Committee. Because Make It Meadville operates under the umbrella of the redevelopment authority, Collard’s selection was formally announced by Jill Groves, the authority’s executive director.

In its April 28 resolution supporting the creation of the ombudsperson position, council directed City Manager Joe Chriest to advise all city regulatory employees to reasonably cooperate with the ombudsperson and also directed the ombudsperson to periodically report to council regarding the operation of the project.

In his proposal to City Council, Ed Fine, leader of Make It Meadville’s Economic Innovation Committee, included the observation that “many remarkable and even spectacular spaces remain dusty and unused in our old buildings. Making them into living spaces that cannot be duplicated by modern construction techniques will create a legacy that will survive another century and make the downtown a coveted neighborhood. Let’s go.”

Collard is ready.

Back in early 2009, when he was gathering signatures for a slot on the ballot for Meadville City Council, Collard visited most of the city’s downtown businesses.

“One of the things I heard as I was going around talking to downtown business people was that there was often some difficulty in understanding what they had to do, particularly when they were establishing a new business or they wanted to do something to an existing one,” he recalled Monday afternoon.

“I got two kinds of comments,” Collard continued. “One was ‘Gee, we talked to one department and we get Answer A about something we have to do. We talk to another department and we get Answer B — and you can’t do both.’ One of the things I will be doing is trying to get everybody on the same page. The other comment I got was about the length of the process and the difficulty in getting a commitment or an answer. Even if the answer is ‘no,’ that’s better than being lost in limbo.”

At the time, he made a mental note to try to bring some clarity to the process if he got elected. Although he made it through the primary, Collard lost to incumbent council member LeRoy Stearns in the November election by seven votes — and soon became an active member of the Make It Meadville Committee.

As for what his new position will entail, “the really major projects — for example, ERIEBANK — aren’t the sort of thing we’d be involved with,” he said. “Those people are spending a lot of money and have architects they can draw on. This is to assist a small business owner getting things done.”

In his new position, “I’m particularly interested in getting second or third floors of downtown buildings occupied,” Collard said.

According to Collard, the process can be overwhelming — especially for someone who’s never done it before. “I think what business people need is someone’s shoulder to lean on — to tell them what they really need to do and how to get it done,” he said. The size of the project, he stresses, is no object. “What looks like a small issue could be a big issue for the businessman,” he said.

As for the immediate future, “I’m up and running,” he said. “I’m really excited about doing this. I’m excited about Meadville.”

The Make It Meadville Committee’s new ombudsman, Tom Collard, can be reached by phone at 853-2942 or by e-mail at tcollard@ymail.com for advice or assistance in identifying and complying with applicable laws, rules and regulations governing renovation and expansion of structures in the downtown area.

Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at mspicer@meadvilletribune.com.

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