Published in Small Business

Kent County commits $25M to small business recovery assistance grants

BY Sunday, June 21, 2020 04:22pm

Forming a relief fund to aid small businesses hurting from the COVID-19 pandemic was an early idea Kent County commissioners pursued when they began considering two months ago what to do with $114.6 million in federal aid funding. 

After receiving the money in late April that was allocated through the CARES Act that Congress enacted in response to the pandemic, commissioners sought to move quickly to assess what was needed “because we knew time was of the essence,” said Mandy Bolter, who chairs the Kent County Board of Commissioners.

Dante Villarreal, vice president of business and talent development at the Grand Rapids Chamber COURTESY PHOTO

As a subcommittee went about its work, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce was managing its own relief fund for small businesses “and providing us with some great data on businesses who are saying, ‘I can’t stay open for more than another month,’” Bolter said.

The subcommittee held nine meetings over four weeks and heard from more than 30 community groups, Bolter said. Using a portion of the CARES Act funding for relief grants surfaced as a top priority, she said.

That idea comes to fruition June 22 with the start of an online application process for the $25 million Kent County Small Business Recovery Program created in partnership with the Grand Rapids Chamber.

“$25 million is a lot of money coming to small businesses and, hopefully, we can get this out right away,” Kent County Administrator Wayman Britt said.

[RELATED: Groups say their assistance with Kent County relief fund merits compensation]

Approved June 11 by Kent County commissioners, the aid program will provide grants of $5,000, $10,000, $15,000 or $20,000 to small businesses. Grant amounts will depend on an applicant’s size, operating costs, and how well they score against a set of review metrics.

The grants are intended for the more than 29,000 for-profit small businesses based in Kent County that were formed prior to Feb. 15 and have up to 25 full-time-equivalent employees. Recipients can use the grant funding as working capital to cover pandemic-related expenses such as business interruption, personal protection equipment, needed facility modifications to comply with COVID-19 regulations, wages, rent, utilities, labor and other fixed costs.

“$25 million is going to be a game-changer for us here in Kent County,” said Dante Villarreal, vice president of business and talent development at the Grand Rapids Chamber.

‘Front of the line’

The Grand Rapids Chamber, which is managing the grant program with Kent County, will initially take applications the first week only from small businesses that previously have been unable to access or were declined any other local, state or federal COVID-19-related aid. After the first week, the Small Business Recovery Program’s application process will open June 29 for another week for all other small businesses in Kent County, Villarreal said.

The two-phase process is intended to help small businesses that have the highest needs and have not received any prior form of aid and “get them to the front of the line” in the first week, Villarreal said.

The online application is available at the Chamber’s website, grandrapids.org

As Kent County commissioners on the subcommittee began their work to allocate the CARES Act funding, they reviewed loan and grant programs The Right Place Inc. administered locally with funding from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., as well as the Grand Rapids Chamber’s own grant initiative that provided about $1.4 million in assistance to 125 small businesses.

In deciding to create a much-larger relief fund for small businesses, subcommittee members were “recognizing that people need to work,” said Commissioner Jim Talen, the minority vice chair of the Kent County Board of Commissioners who served on the subcommittee.

“There are tons of people ready to go back to work and businesses that are struggling to bring them back to work,” Talen said. “People need to work and if the businesses aren’t there, people can’t work.”

Grant recipients will receive technical assistance on cutting costs, connecting with other resources and projecting six-month cash flow. Business consultants will follow up with grant recipients after 30 days, do a 60-day “well check,” and check in again after 90 days “to see if they might need other kinds of help and support like business model change, marketing, or other help with cash flow,” said Andy Johnston, vice president of government affairs for the Grand Rapids Chamber.

Providing the technical support follows the Kent County Small Business Recovery Program’s goal of supporting small businesses and enabling them to survive the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn, and bolster the recovery locally.

“The money can only go so far,” Johnston said. “With the expertise we have at the Chamber, we’re able to provide additional technical assistance from our subject matter experts that we think will help to improve the survivability of some of these businesses. That’s what it’s really all about. If we can help support these small businesses through this time, Kent County is going to be in a much stronger position coming out of this.”

Quick turnaround

The technical assistance will look at a grant recipient’s business model and “help determine what can we do, what else can you do to be a sustainable business and to mitigate this negative impact in the economy right now,” Villarreal said.

Review committees of five members each, consisting of representatives from partner organizations “that would like to be part of this process,” will recommend who should receive funding, Villarreal said. The Chamber will assist small businesses in the grant application process and aims to review grant applications within five business days.

“This is a very quick turnaround process. We are intentional there because we know that businesses are, unfortunately, closing each and every day. A day or a week could be the difference in them staying open,” he said.

The county will make the final decisions on grant awards.

The online application platform that Villarreal describes as “very user-friendly” will initially ask for applicants’ information on themselves and their business, how they’ve been affected by COVID-19 and state executive orders, and financial data. The application process requires at least two financial documents “that can help them tell their story about how they’ve been impacted,” Villarreal said.

“We’re not requiring a specific one, but the more documentation that they can provide, the stronger their story is for the reviewers,” he said.

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