Kent County Levy Court has approved a $5 million grant program for small businesses and hospitality companies affected by the pandemic.
The measure, which passed unanimously during a Nov. 9 meeting, is Kent County’s first use of the $35.5 million it received in American Rescue Plan Act funds.
The grant program includes $3 million in grants for businesses with less than 100 employees to pay for employee wages and other business expenses and $2 million for hotels, event venues and other tourism hospitality industry companies.
Judy Diogo, president of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, said it’s important to remember that many small businesses had to close during the pandemic by no choice of their own.
She doesn’t know exactly how many small businesses were forced to close permanently because not all of Kent County’s businesses are members of the chamber, but she is aware of 58 member businesses having closed because of COVID-related impacts.
“Small busisesses are desperately trying to come back now,” Diogo said. “They’re desperately trying to get themselves back up and running, and they’re having a difficult time getting employees. For many of them, they have used all of their capital to keep themselves open through this time.”
Under the program, at least 633 small businesses would be able to qualify for aid, Diogo said.
County administrator Michael Petit de Mange said grants can be used for any type of business expense that would otherwise be paid for with the revenue that has been lost.
“It’s going to be spelled out in the grant application, but it could be paying bills, it could be covering payroll or business supplies or other expenses related to the business utility expenses,” he said.
Grant applications will be processed by Dover accounting firm Faw Casson to check for compliance and eligibility.
They will then be reviewed by the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce and Kent County Tourism Corporation, who will send their final recommendations to the Levy Court for approval.
Once the applications are determined to be accurate and complete, they will be referred to the Levy Court, which will vote on their approval. Payment will be issued directly by the county.
Kent County Tourism Corporation president Pete Bradley said the grants for hotels, event facilities and banquet halls will help an industry that was “enormously” impacted by the pandemic.
The best measure of the impact on the hospitality industry, Bradley said, is the county’s accommodations tax. In the 12-month period ending in March 2021, tax revenues were down 42% year over year.
Hospitality grants will likely be allocated with a priority given to smaller businesses, he said, though for the hospitality grant program there is no specific cap on the number of employees a company can have to qualify.
There are close to 35 hotels in Kent County that could qualify for the grant and a handful of event and banquet halls.
Kent County Tourism Corp. and Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce have drafted a couple of different proposals for other types of businesses, Diogo said. She’s hopeful that if this program is a success they will be able to bring those ideas to the county for consideration.
New Castle and Sussex Counties have not yet implemented similar programs.
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