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Northam expands small business grant program

Northam expands small business grant program

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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam pauses as he answers a reporter's question dealing with VMI during a press conference at the Patrick Henry building in Richmond, VA Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020.

When Boitnott Visual Communications Corp. faced hard economic times more than two decades ago, Keith Boitnott said his father told him the business survived by selling more.

But these times are different for the 51-year-old Midlothian-based company, which relies on renting audiovisual equipment to corporations and other clients for big events that they no longer hold since a global pandemic that reached Virginia in early March.

“Right now, that isn’t an option,” Boitnott said of his father’s advice. “We can’t sell more because there is no demand.”

Gov. Ralph Northam gave a different opportunity to Boitnott and other small-business owners who asked him for help during a conference call on Wednesday: a chance to receive a grant of up to $100,000 each to survive the pandemic through an expanded state program for business relief.

Shortly after the call, Northam announced an additional $30 million in federal CARES Act money for the Rebuild VA program. The program has a total of $100 million that the state can distribute to a much broader range of small businesses to help them cover payroll, pay mortgages or rent, make loan payments and cover the costs of protective gear or disinfectant to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

More important to Boitnott and other small-business owners, the state loosened eligibility requirements for businesses, based on income and number of employees, and raised the maximum amount for grants tenfold. The state already had changed the program rules to allow businesses to participate even if they had received other help from the CARES Act, such as Paycheck Protection Program loans.

“The new flexibility and increased funding the governor announced today will be a lifeline for these small businesses that have been so hard-hit by the economic crisis,” said Nicole Riley, Virginia state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, which arranged the meeting with Northam. “If the business owners can make it through the pandemic, they will again be generating income, providing jobs, and helping the state’s economy recover.”

Rebuild VA, administered by the Department of Small Business and Supplier Diversity in partnership with other state agencies, has committed more than $34 million in grants to about 1,250 businesses, but the new eligibility requirements will help get more aid to businesses that need it to survive, Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball said Thursday.

“We’ll get the money out the door,” Ball said.

Relief can’t come too soon for Boitnott, who has been surviving on his line of credit and an “economic injury disaster” loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

He also had received a PPP loan under the CARES Act that he said allowed him to keep his 15 employees at full pay for 15 weeks, but it ran out in late July at the same time as the law’s enhanced unemployment benefit of an additional $600 a week expired.

Boitnott furloughed a portion of his staff, or required them to take leave without pay, but he continues to pay for the health insurance and other benefits.

“I didn’t want to furlough somebody and leave them without health insurance,” he said.

Previously, Boitnott’s business wasn’t eligible for help from Rebuild VA, but in September the state eliminated its prohibition against grants for businesses that had received PPP loans.

On Wednesday, Northam raised the threshold for participating from companies with up to 25 employees and $1.5 million in gross revenues to businesses and nonprofits with up to 250 employees and $10 million in gross revenues. He also raised the maximum grant from $10,000 to $100,000.

Those changes were critical to Boitnott, whose business earned more than $1.5 million in gross income last year but lost 80% of it this year, with almost no income at all since the public health emergency began.

“The pandemic has been extremely tough for us,” he said. “There is no demand.”

Boitnott already has contacted Rebuild VA with a “refreshed” application, which he said is under review.

He credited Northam for being “very receptive” to the needs of his and other small-business owners who participated in the conference call.

“I was very pleased to have the option to talk to him because I think he certainly understands what businesses in the commonwealth are going through,” he said.

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