State approves Douglas County’s $24.9 million CARES funding plan, including creation of local business grants

photo by: Meeting screenshot/Douglas County Commission

Douglas County Commissioners discuss plans for grant programs created in its $24.9 million CARES funding plan during their meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020.

Douglas County’s plan to spend nearly $25 million of federal coronavirus relief funding has been accepted by the state.

That includes business grant programs the County Commission created in the late stages of crafting its plan for its $24.9 million allotment of funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as CARES.

County Administrator Sarah Plinsky informed the commissioners of the state’s approval on Wednesday before they discussed outlines for the grant programs that will be administered by “umbrella” organizations.

The plan also includes funding for local municipalities and many organizations from the health and medical, housing and human services and education sectors.

“This is good news for our community,” Plinsky said.

But Plinsky noted state officials specifically required the county to have detailed plans for how the funding in the grant programs would be spent. She said the state would be “watching every penny.”

Although the commissioners approved the spending plan last month, they created the grant programs within the plan to give county businesses more time to apply for funding. However, the funds are still required to be spent by the end of the year.

The three business-related umbrella organizations — Downtown Lawrence Inc., the Lawrence Restaurant Association and Explore Lawrence — provided outlines of each of their programs that will help the county’s retail and hospitality industries. But the commissioners asked for some changes to their plans on Wednesday.

The Lawrence Restaurant Association, which will award up to $1.6 million, plans to provide grants for reimbursement of personal protective equipment, sanitation, public health measures and business interruption expenses. The organization plans to provide grants based on the size of the business, which will be dictated by the number of employees the business had from March 1 to the time of the application. The funds will be available to restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bakeries, event spaces and hotels with full-service restaurants.

Downtown Lawrence Inc., which will award $450,000, plans to provide similar grants to county businesses. The organization said it would focus on awarding the grants to locally owned retail and service businesses in Douglas County. But the amount of funding available to each business will depend on the number of applicants.

Explore Lawrence, which has $200,000 to offer, proposed providing $21,000 to each county hotel that remained open during the pandemic and $10,000 to hotels that closed for a time but have reopened. The organization also plans to award reimbursements to hotels for personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and labor expenses related to enhanced cleaning and training.

The commissioners expressed some concerns about how Downtown Lawrence Inc. planned to review its grant applications. Commission Chair Patrick Kelly noted that the group reviewing the applications was made up of board members or staff for the organization, and he said the group should include more people from across the county.

Sally Zogry, executive director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., said the organization was still working to add Eudora and Baldwin City representatives to the group. She said she would also look into adding a Lecompton representative and a Lawrence representative outside of the downtown area.

The commissioners also asked that the plans focus on providing the funding to locally owned businesses. For example, the commissioners asked the Lawrence Restaurant Association to reword its plan to make sure the funds were only available to “regional” businesses, as opposed to national chain restaurants in the county.

“Really focusing on local (businesses) is what we need to do,” Thellman said.

Plinsky said the county would communicate the commissioners’ requests to the umbrella organizations.

In other business, the commissioners:

• Approved a site plan for the construction of a 35,000-square-foot structure at the southeast corner of North 1900 Road and East 1450 Road, which is also known as U.S. Highway 24. The structure will be an agriculture shop and office structure for Sod Shop, a sod and stone business. Thellman voted against the plan, noting concerns about water drainage in the area.

• Awarded an agritourism registration to a 30-acre property at 292 North 2100 Road in Lecompton. The farm on the property — Burning Barrel LLC — plans to create a seasonal event space that includes offering farm-to-table meals.

• Formally endorsed the joint governance structure between Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and LMH Health for the county’s planned behavioral health crisis center. The two organizations formed a nonprofit organization, Behavioral Health Partners Inc., to serve as the management of the center. The nonprofit will be governed by a nine-member board, with Bert Nash, LMH Health and the County Commission each appointing three members.

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