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Board OKs $50K toward small biz relief program

By Vicky O. Misa | Vicky.misa@news-star.com | (405) 214-3962 | Twitter: @Vicky_NewsStar
The Shawnee News-Star

On Monday Shawnee City Commissioners unanimously voted in favor of awarding funding toward a relief program aimed at offsetting some of the struggle the COVID-19 pandemic has had on small businesses locally.

Shawnee Forward CEO Rachael Melot

The board agreed to use a portion — a requested $50,000 — of its $2.4 million in Cares Act Funds toward a small business relief program proposed by Shawnee Forward CEO Rachael Melot.

She said she also has asked other cities in the county, as well as county commissioners, to participate in the program. Pottawatomie County doubled her request, ponying up $100,000 toward the fund.

The City of Tecumseh was considering the same request Monday evening, as well.

Melot said some cities were not able to contribute, as they did not receive Cares funds.

“Some of them were not able to receive the (Cares) funds money because they didn't have the staff to actually put together the application or they were late in being notified that townships could actually apply,” she said. “We've also had some cities (in the county) tell us, quite frankly, if they reallocated their Cares money they would probably close their doors as a city government.”

By the sheer volume of work and resources it would take to ensure funds were allocated to specific areas equal to amount given from those areas, Shawnee Forward opted instead to combine all funds into one account.

She said there is a lot of pain in the county.

“They suffer when our businesses suffer,” she said. “So we're looking at this as an investment in us and our neighbors, as a county.”

Melot said the program was organized very quickly, in hopes that checks could be issued to businesses as soon as January.

“We're hearing their pain,” she said.

The grant application, award process and rubric were vetted by multiple committees and are based on communities the size of Shawnee, she said.

The Shawnee Forward grant plan has a unique quality, unlike similar programs in the state.

“This grant (in the rubric and application criteria) is based on what investments a business is making to stay open,” she explained. “What we saw, when we were applying for EIDL and PPP, it was all based on showing loss within a particular time period.”

She said, unfortunately, that criteria does not accurately reflect a business owner's loss.

“It's not fair to everybody, because whatever that time period is, may not actually reflect your billing cycle and your pain,” she said. “If you had to show a loss in second quarter, you may be receiving all your billing from what you did in first quarter, but if you're doing zero billing in second quarter, you're actually taking the hit in the third, so you didn't qualify because you didn't show the loss at the right time.”

She said what Shawnee Forward is proposing is that businesses actually put forth their plan of investment. “We are asking them to show that they were in business this year,” she said. “Not that they were open, because, quite frankly, some of them were mandated closed, but did they try to remain in business?”

There are some small businesses in the community that had to close their door for periods of days, she said, but they took that opportunity to invest in their online presence and their digital media, and they were able to remain open.

“We don't want to penalize them because they were creative,” Melot said. “This application process actually allows people to just show us what they have invested, what they plan to invest and how they think that's going to help them remain sustainable and open.”

She said what they want to do is help people who have made it this far stay open.

There are a lot of ways people can apply. Some types of things small business owners might ask for could be:

• A business may need help creating a gift card system.

There's significant cost that a business incurs in order to be able to offer a gift card, Melot said.

For example, in March when her small business was closed, Melot said she had to make about a $2,500 investment in her point-of-sale software system so she could become an online vendor.

• A business might want to create hand-washing stations or PPE type tools

• A business may need to invest in technology to allow employees to work remotely

• A business may want to add a touchless pickup/drop-off space to the outside of their building

“We want to open this to people, really telling us what it is they feel they need and then they write a business plan for that return for them,” she said.

Melot said the grant also can be used to reimburse businesses for investments they have already made this year, such as installing plexiglass as a barrier between customers or employees, etc.

“We don't want to penalize the businesses who made the investment and now are having a hard time making payroll,” she said.

Melot said details about the program will be made public once the application goes live, which is expected to be Wednesday.

The reason some of the information hasn't been made public yet, she said, is because numbers and details could change or need adjustment, depending on how much funding is secured, since decisions from some cities have not been approved yet.

“We have already seen things misquoted,” she said, “so we want to make sure that when we go live on Wednesday everybody has all of the facts.”

Review committee

“To ensure we don't have the same five decision-makers evaluating this, we have reached out to the county to recommend somebody in the county to serve on this task force,” she said. “We (also) pulled four people from every quadrant of the county, both inside and outside the City of Shawnee — committee members that have high business acumen, that have significant financial background, and who agree to sign an non-disclosure agreement.”

She said Shawnee Forward decided to allow the committee members' names to remain anonymous so they don't get bombarded and campaigned.

That task force will review the applications, evaluate them by using the rubric, and then score them.

In a final step, the task force will make their recommendations to a three-person committee made up of Melot, a county appointee and a city appointee.

Hopefully award letters can be given by the end of January, she said.

Anyone contributing to the fund or managing the fund will not be eligible to apply for a grant, Melot said.

The maximum grant amount is $5,000, to be able to help as many as they can.

Melot said the situation can be reviewed in 90 days to assess if another grant cycle is needed or desired.

Creating the program

“Shawnee Forward has recognized that our small businesses are such a crucial and critical component of our survival,” Melot said. “Not only are they generating a great deal of all of our taxes, but they're also great places for our graduates to work or stay in our community.”

She said she believes all the businesses in the county benefit the City of Shawnee.

“I have communicated with the economic development directors of several communities about our size, who have done this,” Melot said. “So communities like Stillwater, Duncan, and other communities in similar size to us, (we) asked them what did they learn from doing this?”

Many of them did similar grants in September and October, she said.

“We are maybe a little later to the game, but honestly, with the state we are in, our small businesses right now are in this gap place where there hasn't been any funding — there hasn't been any new information for assistance,” she said. “We have the announcement of three of our downtown businesses announcing either closure or reduced time open because they're having to make really tough decisions.”

She said putting together a small business grant would show a really great investment in business owners in surrounding communities.

The most help

Ward 4 Shawnee City Commissioner Darren Rutherford made a plea to business owners regarding the program.

There are going to be some businesses out there, that he said he hopes people really take it to heart — they will score well and could be granted the maximum amount of the grant.

“Make sure you need it to survive, because it is a limited amount of funds, and make sure your neighbor is not going to suffer because you scored better, you took it, you could've survived — they're not,” he said. “Please, everyone, consider those things when you're doing these (applications). Think about your neighbors and if you absolutely have to have it, because there are businesses that have to have it; they will not survive without this help.”

Shawnee Forward's grant program application and award process.
Shawnee Forward's grant program rubric, page 1.
Shawnee Forward's grant program rubric, page 2.