$450K grant program set to open for Douglas County businesses hit by pandemic

photo by: Jackson Barton/Journal-World File Photo

The Douglas County Courthouse and downtown Lawrence are pictured in an aerial photo Saturday, July 13, 2019.

Area businesses that have been hit hard by the pandemic will have a chance to get a share of $450,000 in grant money, beginning Wednesday.

Downtown Lawrence Inc. will begin accepting applications for grants at noon on Sept. 23. The downtown organization has been chosen by county officials to award the federal grant money, but the program is open to businesses regardless of whether they are downtown; they can be located anywhere in Douglas County.

Businesses can start the application process by going to the website downtownlawrence.com. The program is designed to fund retail and service businesses, but not restaurants. A separate $1.65 million grant program through the Lawrence Restaurant Association has been established.

“I think this is a very critical program,” Sally Zogry, executive director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., told me. “I think retail has kind of gotten left behind in a sense.”

Zogry said there has understandably been a large emphasis on helping restaurants and other hospitality businesses that often have been ordered closed by health regulators. But she said retailers also have struggled significantly.

In downtown Lawrence, for example, she estimated visitor traffic was still down by about 50% on many days, and plenty of retailers have seen even greater sales declines.

“There are still people down in terms of sales 50%, 60%, 70%,” she said.

The grant program, which is funded through the nearly $25 million CARES Act allocation Douglas County received, won’t help make up all those lost sales. Zogry said the program wasn’t designed to replace lost business revenue. Rather, it is structured to reimburse businesses for COVID-related expenses. That might mean paying for the plexiglass shields installed near cash registers or the purchasing of masks for employees and customers. But it also can involve less direct pandemic expenditures. For example, if a business had to start a delivery service because of the pandemic, the grant money could be used to help pay for mileage and other such expenses. Purchasing technology, such as new payment systems to promote contactless buying, also may be popular items for reimbursements.

In many cases, businesses already have paid for those expenses, so what the grant program really will be doing is providing some much-needed cash. And unlike the popular Paycheck Protection Program that was approved by Congress, there is no risk that the business has to repay this money. (The PPP provided loans that could be converted into a grant if the business was able to keep a certain number of people employed.) Zogry said she has heard from several businesses that are still uncertain about whether their PPP loans are going to be forgiven.

“For people who already have a lot of debt as a business owner, for them to take on more and not have firm assurances, it can be really nerve-wracking,” Zogry said. “This is nice because it is just a grant. It will help them put money back in the bank to replace what they have already spent.”

Business will need to provide receipts, though, for purchases that they have made. Planned expenses before the end of the year also can be submitted. But, according to the federal rules, all funds must be spent before the end of 2020.

A committee of seven people will review the funding applications and make decisions on the awards. Zogry said the committee membership hadn’t been finalized, but it will include a mix of business owners or chamber of commerce leaders from across the county. She said she has received commitments from chamber leaders in Baldwin City and Eudora, and had reached out to a Lecompton representative. Other members will include business owners both in downtown and outside of downtown. Zogry also will serve on the committee. Zogry said the names of the committee members would be publicized on DLI’s website once they are finalized.

Zogry said business owners on the committee would be allowed to submit a grant application but wouldn’t be allowed to vote on their own applications. However, Zogry said she hoped the decision-making process would be straightforward. Since the program is based on reimbursements, businesses won’t be asked to make a “pitch” about why their program or idea should be funded. Instead the committee will review that the submitted expenses fit into approved categories.

The committee also will need to create a formula for determining the maximum amount of money a business can receive through the program. Zogry said the application process will require companies to provide payroll data. She said that data would be used to help ensure grant amounts were in proportion to the company’s size.

The program will give priority to women-owned and minority-owned businesses, Zogry said. The program also is meant for locally owned businesses rather than national chains, she said.

Service businesses can apply for the program. Zogry said examples of eligible service businesses include both personal and professional service companies, such as hair salons, spas, attorneys, accountants, financial planners and many others.

Zogry said she hoped the program would start making grant awards in the next two weeks. The program will accept applications until all funds are expended. However, Zogry said current plans call for two phases to the program. Phase 1 will expend about 80% of the $450,000 allocation. A second phase that will begin in late October will award the rest of the money, Zogry said.

“We want this to be a meaningful program for businesses, and we want to spend every dollar,” Zogry said.

In other news from downtown, Zogry said:

• Downtown Lawrence Inc. is working with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to install about 35 hand sanitizer stations in downtown. However, Zogry said the machines, which will be heavy-duty to withstand the elements, have been on back order, and she is not sure when they will arrive. Plans call for the stations to be installed on corners, midblock locations, and at several parking lots around downtown.

• DLI plans to ask city commissioners for an extension of the temporary right-of-way permit that has allowed businesses to use the parking spaces in front of their businesses for outdoor dining or retail. The permit was scheduled to end on Oct. 31, but Zogry said some businesses wanted it extended for a month or two longer.

“It can still be 50 degrees in November, and we need to capture every nice day that we can,” Zogry said.

She said several businesses had indicated they would invest in heaters and other improvements to make the spaces more comfortable through the late fall or early winter.

“Plus, think about how nice it would be to eat under the holiday lights in downtown,” Zogry said.


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