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City grant program overwhelmed with applicants

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

The city of Claremont’s small business grant program received so many inquiries on the first day of eligibility that officials stopped accepting requests an hour and forty minutes after the application process began.

Initial inquiries into both the small business and the rental assistance programs began at noon Monday, and within the first ten minutes the city received over thirty requests from small businesses. City officials shut down the process once they hit 99 requests for the 20 grants, which will be awarded to qualifying businesses on a first come, first served basis.

The remaining businesses will be put on a wait list so that if any of the first 20 don’t qualify or request less than the full $20,000 the city will go to the next business in line.

Assistant City Manager Chris Paulson will be sending out the official application to just the first 20 businesses. The owners will then have a week to collect the documentation and submit the formal application.

Mr. Paulson will be performing the screening, including verification that the business has not received any other assistance, such as money from the federal Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection program.

“The Council in their discussion of the item wanted to make sure that funds were given to business that haven’t received other funds. If one of the first 20 has already received funds from PPE or SBA they would be put on the waiting list. Likewise if one of the first twenty does not meet the eligibility qualifications they would be removed from consideration,” Claremont’s Public Information Officer Bevin Handel told the COURIER.

Melissa Harvey has owned Salon 6SixtyFive on Foothill Boulevard in Claremont for three years, however, the business itself has been around for more than 20. Like all personal grooming businesses, she had to abruptly close down on March 19 because of the governor’s stay-at-home order.

She is extremely interested in Claremont’s small business grant program, in part because she did not qualify for the Paycheck Protection program because her stylists are independent contractors instead of employees.

Ms. Harvey submitted her grant request shortly after noon on Monday but just narrowly missed the cutoff. So now she is stuck on the wait list with many other local proprietors.

“I am hopeful that they will find other funding either from the county or CARES Act,” she said. “Or maybe the first 20 won’t ask for the full amount.”

She had planned to ask for $13,000 to cover rent, utilities and the expense of retrofitting the salon for proper social distancing. This will include removing about half of the booths and installing some type of curtains between each of the remaining stations. They will also have to increase the frequency of disinfecting and cleaning the facility. Plus, with the workers wearing face coverings and other protective gear, it will be necessary to take more breaks.

Ms. Harvey estimates that once she reopens clientele volume, and in turn revenue, will be about half of what it was before the pandemic. In addition,  her husband, who works with school fire alarm systems, has been laid off, leaving the couple without an income.

“We will be busy once we reopen,” Ms. Harvey said. “We have very loyal customers, some people have been coming here over 20 years. They are like family.”

If the social distancing restrictions persist, she may have to charge more to make ends meet, but not in the short term. “We know our clients are struggling too, so we don’t want to raise the prices. We will just have to wait and see,” Ms. Harvey said.

The small business grant program is intended to help businesses that are unable to pay employees or their commercial rent. Qualified applicants will receive grants in the form of a check from the city of Claremont. If the business is requesting assistance with a commercial lease, the payment will be made directly to the landlord or property manager. Documentation on how the funds will be spent must be provided.

The budget for the emergency small business grant program will come from two community development block grants, $176,368 from fiscal year 2019-20 and $106,146 from fiscal year 2020-21, for a total of $282,514. However, that is not enough to give all 20 applicants the full $20,000 benefit.

“If each business qualified for the full $20,000 we would exhaust it within the first 14  (they have to submit documentation for that amount). We anticipate a variety of amounts and not all applicants will qualify, that’s why the [limit of] 20 was used. We will move through the wait list if we have remaining money or if any of the first 20 do not qualify or choose not to submit,” Ms. Handel said.

Ms. Handel said the city anticipated there would be a lot of interest but were surprised by the sheer volume and the speed at which the requests were made.

“It shows how much need there is,” she said. “A lot [of local businesses] did not quality for federal assistance and those businesses need help.”

The rental assistance program received 91 requests as of 6 p.m. Monday and remained open until they reached 120 inquiries Wednesday afternoon. The city will maintain a wait list for the rental program as well.

Funding for the programs comes from a series of community development block grants the city receives every year from HUD and grants that cities get from the county under the CARES act.

Councilmember Jed Leano said the fact that city hall was bombarded with requests was a sign that they were successful at getting the word out, even if demand far exceeded supply. He did not know if additional funds for the two programs could be identified, but that is something the council will have to explore.

“I had a follow up inquiry with Chris Paulson and both programs were in very high demand so we directed the resources where they were needed,” Mr. Leano said.

Late Wednesday afternoon Ms. Harvey received an email from Mr. Paulson that provided a glimmer of hope.

“Chris contacted me and said I’m still on the wait list but that they have been able to move into more applicants. So I’m optimistic,” Ms Harvey said.

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