LANCASTER — City officials, criticized for using a $187,500 subsidy to lure a large new pet supply store to town, are considering financial aid requests from other pet shop owners who fear the new store will drive them out of business.
Lancaster pet shop owners complained, and hundreds of residents signed protest petitions after the City Council voted last July to provide the subsidy to PetsMart if the chain agreed to occupy a large vacant store in the Valley Central shopping center.
Last Monday, about a month before the opening of the new PetsMart, the council instructed City Manager Jim Gilley to determine whether the owners of seven established pet shops were also eligible for aid.
"We've met with pet store owners and said the programs available to PetsMart are available to them, too," Mayor Arnie Rodio said Friday. "They've submitted some things that they want us to do."
Rodio said the city may be able to provide loans to help a pet store owner expand and add new employees.
"These programs are available, but the city has no giveaway programs," the mayor said. "All the money we give away has pay-back provisions, so we get our money back. There's no free lunch."
PetsMart's subsidy, which will be used to offset the store's rent over 7 1/2 years, requires the business to generate a specific amount of sales tax revenue for the city.
Worried about the new competition, some owners of established pet stores have asked the city to buy their shops or provide thousands of dollars for advertising. But, Rodio said, "We're not in the business of doing that."
Gilley, the city manager, said Lancaster officials must move cautiously so they will not provide an illegal gift of public funds.
"I have no doubt that there are other businesses waiting in the wings to see how we deal with these pet store owners," Gilley said.
Tim Harris, owner of the Pet Oasis store, said Friday that he was still weighing the risks of accepting a city loan to expand his single shop at a time when wealthy chains such a PetsMart dominate the market.
"My fear is that we're going to go the way of the small mom-and-pop hardware and grocery stores," he said.
While city officials and pet store owners were discussing aid packages, Fred Brodish, a council watchdog, was preparing Friday to lead informational picketing outside the PetsMart when it opens next month.
Brodish said he has arranged for off-duty or retired police officers to instruct residents on how to protest legally. He said instruction would be offered outside Lancaster City Hall at 1 p.m. Saturday.
When he meets customers outside the PetsMart store, "I'm not going to tell them how to shop," Brodish said. "I'm going to try to make them aware of how their tax dollars are being spent."