Charlottesville has begun doling out grants and loans to support local businesses suffering from the coronavirus pandemic.
The city’s Minority Business Commission held an electronic meeting on Thursday to discuss how money is being distributed through several measures approved last month by the city’s Economic Development Authority.
The authority voted to revamp several programs to inject $350,000 into the local economy. The programs are separate from federal assistance to small businesses.
The first change created the Building Resilience Among Charlottesville Entrepreneurs program. Hollie Lee, the city’s chief of workforce development strategies, said the city has allocated $80,000 and has about $4,800 remaining in the program.
The micro-grant program provides up to $2,000 per applicant. Half can be used to cover fixed costs, such as utilities or rent, and fund creative solutions, but the rest must go toward changing business models.
Antwon Brinson of Culinary Concepts and Ashley Clarke of The Fringe Collective hair salon discussed how they’re using the money provided by the program.
“We’ve had to completely close down,” Clarke said. “It’s just done. You can’t take any more clients and we’re just having to call everybody with standing appointments and having to figure out how you’re going to fit them in.”
Clarke said she is using the money to keep an apprentice on staff and to make the final payment on a website redesign that was already underway.
“We just thought it was the perfect example of a non-essential business really using those grant funds for something positive,” said Zoie Smith, the city’s minority business development coordinator.
To keep in touch with clients, Clarke has been using social media and has been doing some home delivery of hair care products. She’s also planning to purchase an air purifier for use in the salon after the pandemic subsides.
Commission member Kaye Monroe asked if Clarke had considered at-home services, which are allowed under Gov. Ralph Northam’s extended stay-at-home order. Clarke said it’s not worth possibly losing a license or getting sick to conduct house calls.
Brinson’s Culinary Concepts, which runs a “culinary boot camp,” was in the penultimate week of its five-week class when stricter restrictions on businesses came down.
“Most of us were going like 200 miles an hour and it felt like you had a chain on your back and it just stopped you,” Brinson said.
Before the pandemic, Brinson was considering starting an online training program, but didn’t have the time or resources to start it.
“With everything that was happening, it seemed like the perfect time to pivot,” he said.
Brinson said that five of the six people in the boot camp have now received their ServSafe food sanitation certificates online.
Brinson said the money he received helped to acquire the resources and software to establish the online program. He said the program can help people improve their job opportunities after the pandemic.
“This is the perfect time for people to get some resources and get some training so when they go back in the workforce they have a stronger skillset to bring to the table,” he said. “When this thing is over, everyone is going to want people.”
Lee said the city has awarded one low-interest loan and three are in the final approval stages through revisions to the Business Equity Fund, which is managed by the Community Investment Collaborative. The changes add flexibility to the program and shorten turnaround times. City staff have so far recommended $65,000 for 14 businesses.
Businesses can receive loans of up to $5,000 that would require no repayment during the first six months. The total amount would need to be repaid over two years.
Lee said the city has received 21 completed applications for the revamped Go Hire Program since opening the process on Tuesday and knows of more than 20 that are in process.
The program originally was focused on job training or wage subsidies, but now focuses on helping businesses retain or rehire employees.
Commissioners asked Clarke if she would implement social distancing measures when businesses reopen; she said it’s too soon to know how much demand will emerge.
“I’m sure we’ll see a lot of people who are beating the door down,” Clarke said. “And I think a lot of people will continue to stay cautious for a good while.”
Brinson said all businesses will have to change their mindset after the pandemic.
“I don’t think it’ll ever go back to normal,” he said. “The only way to go from here is forward.”