Pandemic: Financial boost for local businesses, nonprofits

(This guest column was originally published in The Chronicle)

In partnership with the Columbia County Economic Team (CCET), Columbia County has distributed $929,274 in small business grants to 159 Columbia County small businesses and nonprofits.

The grants were distributed across eight cities and towns and awarded based on the size of the company – the majority of which were smaller sole proprietorships. The local hospitality industry alone received $258,978.

“Our businesses and communities need this money here,” Columbia County Commissioner Henry Heimuller said. “We were determined not to send a single cent back that would benefit the citizens of Columbia County.”

CCET Executive Director Paul Vogel said the process to take business applications and ensure the distribution of the money was a significant team effort.

“The state had to contract with the county, the county had to contract with an entity to help develop and administer the program and selected us. We had to coordinate with county finance and attorneys to get it all put together in compliance with state and federal guidelines,” Vogel said. “We spent nearly a full day on the phone to make sure all the T’s were crossed and the I’s dotted.”

Columbia County received confirmation and details about its allocation from the state in early December, including the amount it had to work with, and was told that money had to be out the door by Dec. 30. CCET and the county partnered to get the program up and running, materials developed and applications for the grant dollars made available by Dec. 9. This gave businesses 10 days to file them.

Each application was individually checked twice before the awards were made on Dec. 30, according to county officials.

“The thing that really stood out to me in this last round, it was more money, and for a lot of people this was their first time applying,” Vogel said. “They were new recipients. That tells you what you already sense: there’s a whole lot of need out there.”

Vogel said the grant process has been an excellent lens into small business in Columbia County. Those involved feel as though they’ve gotten to know Columbia County companies better than they ever had before, which is beneficial looking forward and building resilience, he said.

This is the third round of emergency small business grants in which CCET has been involved. The first two were funded directly by Business Oregon, with the Columbia County Commissioners providing a match for Round 1. Rounds 1 and 2 were administered jointly by CCET and the Columbia Pacific Economic Development District (Col-Pac).

Even so, small business grants like these are a bit of a new thing, according to Vogel, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis. After an admittedly rough first round for many applicants, Vogel said CCET took some steps to assist businesses in preparing — including workshops to help businesses with basic business preparation that help make them stronger businesses, as well as applicants.

The second round got better, Vogel said, and this round of grant funding went much smoother, although the condensed time crunch created its own challenges.

“It was a bunch of long hours,” Vogel said. “We’ve got a tally — I don’t even know how many hours. You know you’re going to be able to help small businesses and nonprofits, and that’s what keeps you going, the effort to help with that is worthwhile. I feel like I benefited a lot from understanding more of what they’re dealing with in terms of their cost and how they’ve adapted.”

Vogel said Columbia County is faring better than the coast, in some respects, as coastal towns have lower populations and rely on destination foot traffic — and much of the grant funding was based on population. However, Vogel said restaurants, bars and retail are struggling as much in Columbia County as anywhere else.

“We’re not heavy on the hospitality industry, but each of our communities has restaurants, bars, motels and retail that are the soul of the community,” Vogel said. “They’re having a hard time with it. While we’re doing these grants, we’re trying to promote the hell out of these businesses. Our communities are the way they are because of the businesses that are here. Make sure those folks see you darken their doorways and make sure to help those who help our communities remain what they are.”

Paul Vogel

Executive Director of Columbia Economic Team

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