MARTINEZ -- Hoping to "light a spark" under the city's lukewarm economy, Martinez leaders are creating their own nonprofit lender that could bankroll a long-delayed downtown revival.

Independent from city government, the Martinez economic development corporation could seek funding from private lenders, corporate sponsors, grants and application fees.

The corporation's function is to provide loans to owners of 22 unreinforced masonry buildings so they can afford to seismically retrofit their properties. The organization also could make small business loans and fund marketing and branding campaigns.

The goal of all this: luring new shops and customers to downtown Martinez.

"I think this is probably the best shot we have at revitalizing this city, and I think it's probably less contentious in this community (than redevelopment)," said City Manager Phil Vince.

The City Council allocated $85,000 to hire a part-time administrator and draft bylaws for the corporation. An ad hoc committee will draw up a membership roster for the board of directors to present to the full council. Directors may include residents, business owners and representatives from the Martinez Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Martinez.

A 2009 city ordinance requires owners of unreinforced masonry buildings to make their properties earthquake-safe by 2015. But when credit dried up after the recession began, many property owners couldn't borrow the money to pay for seismic retrofitting, which can cost more than $100,000. An earlier plan to enlist local banks to provide low-interest loans failed when the city couldn't line up a primary lender.

The economic development corporation instead would seek to put together a pool of lenders.

"You've got, hopefully, 10 or 12 banks participating in several different loans and that spreads the risk around and then hopefully, in turn, it's a below-market loan," Mayor Rob Schroder said. "I see it as an investment in Martinez and the economic viability of the community. It could create jobs; it could increase revenue to the city through tax income."

Economic development corporations are operating in communities across California, although most tend to operate at the county level, including in Solano, Fresno and Los Angeles counties.

Pittsburg originally used its economic development corporation to make loans under the federal Small Business Administration program. In the 1990s, the corporation turned to real estate development projects, including restoring historic properties in downtown Pittsburg and building a restaurant at that city's marina, before finally evolving into a housing development corporation, according to Garrett Evans, assistant city manager.

Tom LaFleur, who runs the sister organization to the Pittsburg economic and housing corporation, said an economic development corporation is a good tool to finance retrofit projects. He also suggested that Martinez seek to designate the downtown as a historic district so property owners could take advantage of federal tax credits.

"The folks in Martinez may not be talking about historic preservation so much, but the goal of what they want to do, which is retrofit old masonry buildings so that they're usable and preserve the character, is pretty much the same thing," said LaFleur, executive director of Pacific Community Services.

"Frankly, I think the federal tax credit, now that redevelopment is not available, is probably the most effective tool they'll find."

Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.