Bethel uses COVID relief funds to help struggling small businesses

BETHEL – Some of the money from the US city bailout is being used to establish a financial assistance program for local small businesses struggling due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Bethel has received nearly $ 5.9 million in US bailout funding for use through 2022. The city has received half of the money so far.

The Board of Selectmen voted last week to allocate $ 350,000 in federal stimulus money to create the Small Business Assistance Program proposed by the Economic Development Commission, through which grants will be awarded to eligible small businesses. from the city.

Economic Development Director Janie Chrzescijanek said funding from the approved program will allow EDC to support up to 70 local businesses facing financial hardship caused by the pandemic – each of which can apply for up to $ 5,000 in grants.

“This program will provide limited and one-time direct financial assistance in the form of a grant to eligible Bethel small businesses that employ 25 or fewer employees and that have been affected by the COVID pandemic,” she told the Board. of Selectmen last Tuesday. .

Chrzescijanek said the EDC looked at local and national surveys, which found that almost all small businesses have been negatively affected by the pandemic in one way or another.

“Ninety-nine percent of businesses have been affected,” Chrzescijanek said. “Twenty percent of businesses were closed, 71 percent needed immediate cash flow, and there was an 81 percent drop in revenue.”

One Bethel business that closed following the COVID-19 outbreak was Bethel Cinema on Greenwood Avenue. Financial problems led to the final closure of the independent cinema at the start of the pandemic.

Chrzescijanek said a survey by the Small Business Development Center has shown that businesses are still experiencing declining revenues, increasing expenses, and declining profitability, and are still in need of financial assistance.

Some small businesses have chosen not to participate in the federal paycheck protection program and economic disaster loan programs due to future financial problems.

“These were really loans, which some companies did not apply for because they could not take on more debt,” Chrzescijanek said, noting that only about 45% of companies in Bethel said they had received financial assistance. linked to COVID – most of which were in the form of loans.

Not only that, she said, but federal COVID-related business loan programs were meant to “keep people on the payroll” and there was uncertainty as to whether they would be forgivable.

“With that, due to the structuring of these loans, there were still a lot of expenses and business financial needs that were not taken into account,” Chrzescijanek said.

In addition to changes in marketing and sales strategy and rising procurement costs, companies are struggling to recruit and retain employees.

Chrzescijanek said some restaurants in Bethel spend more than $ 1,000 a month just on recruiting efforts.

“The workforce is always a challenge for them,” she said. “They are struggling to fill positions and they find they need to have new jobs or new roles in response to COVID.”

According to Chrzescijanek, a recent EDC survey found that many businesses in the city are grappling with the “constantly changing condition of the market situation” and are in need of working capital.

“They see rising costs due to flexible work environments, automation, employee mental health issues, corporate culture and workplace connection, so they invest more money. – or see the need to invest more money – in these areas, “she said. .

Chrzescijanek said the city’s small business aid program is not meant to save struggling businesses, but rather to “meet the costs and some of the needs of strong businesses to make them even stronger.”

As part of the recently approved program, EDC will be required to provide the Board of Directors with monthly progress summaries.

The Small Business Assistance Program is one of many local US bailout-funded projects offered for Bethel.

Other projects

Bethel’s ARPA committee, which has struggled to find ways to spend US city bailout funds, presented a list of proposed projects to elected officials last week, the most expensive of which was Million Dollar Parloa Park Improvement.

“We are working with Milone & MacBroom to get an estimate of the cost of developing some plans to get to the point where we could bid,” said ARPA committee chair Brad Heering.

The committee is also proposing that $ 50,000 be used to digitize health, construction and planning documents and make them available online.

“Not only would this help the office get more people to search for things online, it would also allow residents easy access to their own files,” Heering said.

The committee also recommends $ 940,000 in improvements to the city’s emergency shelter, the Clifford J. Hurgin Center, which includes:

• Renovation of the entrance hall, washrooms and locker rooms ($ 700,000);

• First phase of elevator repairs ($ 125,000);

• Installation of air conditioning in the gymnasium ($ 65,000);

• Renovation of toilets near the cafeteria ($ 30,000); and

• Improvement of the cafeteria ventilation system ($ 20,000).

The list of projects proposed by the committee also includes $ 400,000 for HVAC upgrades at the high school, $ 65,000 for air intake upgrades in the north wing of the municipal center, $ 50,000 for municipal center wiring upgrades and $ 50,000 for health department filing system upgrades.

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