Kent County is eyeing a $5 million grant program for small businesses and hospitality companies affected by the pandemic.
The program would include $3 million in grants for businesses with less than 100 employees to pay for employee wages and other business expenses.
Companies would have to demonstrate some negative financial impact resulting from the pandemic by providing the county with pre-pandemic financial figures compared to pandemic-era financials.
The remaining $2 million would be available for hotels and other tourism hospitality industry companies to seek financial relief.
If approved, the grants will be paid for with American Rescue Plan Act funds from the federal government.
The plan, which was developed in coordination with the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce and Kent County Tourism Corporation, will be voted on during a Nov. 9 Levy Court meeting.
With their approval, the county hopes to begin accepting applications in late November, according to county administrator Michael Petit de Mange.
“We’ve lost a number of businesses in Kent County and we know that there are those who are still struggling,” Petit de Mange said in an interview with Delaware LIVE News/Town Square Delaware.
He said grants could be used for any type of business expense that would otherwise be paid for with the revenue that has been lost.
“It’s going to be spelled out in the grant application, but it could be paying bills, it could be covering payroll or business supplies or other expenses related to the business utility expenses,” Petit de Mange said.
Grant applications will first be reviewed by the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Corporation to check for compliance and completeness.
Once the applications are determined to be accurate and complete, they will be referred to the Levy Court, which will vote on their approval. Payment would be issued directly by the county.
Petit de Mange said, if approved, businesses will be able to use an online portal to begin the application process.
“The American Rescue Plan Act was intended to provide aid to all sorts of negative impacts created by the pandemic and impacts on our economic condition,” the county administrator said. “Obviously, a big part of that and these particular grants are targeting people in the tourism and hospitality industry, which is an industry that our legislation calls out specifically as a distressed and one that needs to be considered and then also small businesses.”
He said this proposal is a pilot program and noted that the county is also considering other grant programs, including ones for nonprofit organizations.
Judy Diogo, president of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, said it’s important to remember that many small businesses had to close during the pandemic by no choice of their own.
“Small businesses are desperately trying to come back now,” Diogo said. “They’re desperately trying to get themselves back up and running, and they’re having a difficult time getting employees. For many of them, they have used all of their capital to keep themselves open through this time.”
She said the grant program will give them a hand up and get them back on an even keel.
In reviewing the grant applications, the chamber will look at companies’ federal tax returns, the number of employees and evidence that they lost money as a result of the pandemic.
Diogo doesn’t know how many small businesses were forced to close permanently because not all of Kent County’s businesses are members of the chamber, but she did report that 58 member businesses closed because of COVID-related impacts.
She said she and Pete Bradley, president of the tourism corporation, drafted the proposal for the grant program together and presented it to the Levy Court, which has been nothing but supportive.
Bradley said the grants for hotels, event facilities and banquet halls will help an industry that was “enormously” impacted by the pandemic.
He said the best measure of the impact on the hospitality industry is the county’s accommodations tax. In the 12-month period ending in March 2021, tax revenues were down 42% year over year.
Grants, Bradley said, will likely be allocated with a priority given to smaller businesses. For the hospitality grant program, though, there is no specific cap on the number of employees a company can have to qualify.
There are close to 35 hotels in Kent County that could qualify for the grant and a handful of event and banquet halls, he noted.
Kent County Tourism Corp. and Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce have drafted a couple of different proposals for other types of businesses, Diogo said. She’s hopeful that if this program is a success they will be able to bring those ideas to the county for consideration.
“During our initial meeting with the Levy Court, they were all very, very supportive,” Diogo said. “I think that the commissioners completely understand the state that our businesses are in and I think that they see this as an opportunity as commissioners and as Kent County Levy Court to really provide assistance that is direct and hands-on.”
Bradley is similarly optimistic about the program’s likelihood to be approved by the Levy Court next week.
“When Judy Diogo and myself testified before Levy Court in early October and gave the commissioners an overview of what we envisioned — conceptually, we got a very favorable response,” Bradley said. “So yes, I am very optimistic and we’ve been working very hard to that end.”
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