With small businesses and their workers continuing to feel the impacts of the lingering pandemic, Buncombe County has approved a round of grant funding for local businesses through the One Buncombe COVID-19 Rapid Relief Fund.
On Jan. 26, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved $150,000 to help reinvigorate the campaign, with relief heavily focused on helping businesses retain and rehire employees.
Buncombe County also hopes to raise an additional $300,000 through private donations, with the goal of dispersing $500,000 in grants for small local businesses.
One Buncombe, a community COVID-19 response fund sponsored by the Buncombe County Service Foundation and fed through donations, sponsorships and grants, was first launched in April to provide “bridge funding” until broader federal aid could arrive.
That round reached $1.4 million, helping support 95 small businesses with low-interest loans, which helped retain 685 jobs, according to county data.
The fund has also assisted some residents with day-to-day needs including housing, utilities and other emergency assistance. Some funding still remains for those purposes.
“However, there’s a lot more work to do,” Intergovernmental Affairs Director Tim Love said. “I think we knew this then, and we know this now: COVID was going to be a long stretch for all of us, including our businesses, and we continue to see that in the numbers.”
SNAP requests up, business owners uneasy
According to Love, the county unemployment rate hovers around 6%, with women and minorities among the most impacted, consistent with national data.
Additionally, applications for SNAP benefits, or food assistance vouchers, are up 24%, while Medicaid requests are up 7%, Love said.
In a countywide study, Mountain BizWorks found only one in five business owners felt their businesses were in a healthy place going into the first quarter of 2021.
Even so, Love said many local businesses repaid loans from the first round of One Buncombe funding, enabling the county to recirculate funding back into the program.
The commissioners approved a budget amendment to funnel an additional $150,000 into One Buncombe Fund to supplement the program’s remaining $50,000 balance. The county hopes private donations will help add an additional $300,000.
Small businesses impacted by COVID-19 employing fewer than 25 people would be eligible for $5,000, as long as those businesses demonstrated the ability to retain or rehire employees and keep them on payroll at a living wage for at least six months.
“(So) these employees working for these businesses have some comfort knowing their jobs will be there for some time,” Love said.
Who the county will prioritize
The county will prioritize businesses ineligible for PPP funding, as well as sole proprietorships and minority- and women-owned businesses. Sole proprietorships, which make up the majority of minority-owned businesses, will be eligible for $2,500.
Love said many local businesses are wary of taking on more debt, which is why the business relief will be structured as a small business grant, rather than a loan, program.
“We think the grant program meets the needs currently in our community, which was documented well through survey data Mountain BizWorks collected,” Love said.
The initial release date for the grants was initially proposed for mid-March, but some on the board felt that was too long for local businesses to wait.
“This is the tough part of the year and if there’s any way to get this out ahead of that, that would be great,” Newman said.
Buncombe County will immediately begin its goal of raising the additional $300,000. The county plans to begin taking applications for grant funding Feb. 10.
Donate to the One Buncombe Fund at www.onebuncombe.org. Small business owners can apply for funding at mountainbizworks.org/1bf or by calling 828-253-2834 for complete eligibility requirements, grant details, and more.
Asheville Citizen Times