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Recovery Resource Center offers Vt. businesses COVID-19 answers

MIDDLEBURY — The Vermont Agency of Commerce & Community Development on Wednesday, April 1, established a COVID-19 Recovery Resource Center, a new website that is helping financially strapped businesses owners find, and navigate, the myriad state and federal programs able to provide them with critical financial lifelines to weather the ongoing pandemic.
The website, found at accd.vermont.gov/covid-19, also includes resources for individuals recently laid off or furloughed amid the economic strife that has become an inescapable byproduct of COVID-19.
“I think this resource center is probably going to become the central sharing space for businesses,” Addison County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Fred Kenney said.
In addition to providing updates on Gov. Phil Scott’s executive orders regulating Vermonters’ travel and shopping opportunities, the new website offers links to such aid amenities as:
• Paycheck Protection Program, which provides cash-flow assistance through 100 percent federally guaranteed loans to employers who maintain their payroll during this pandemic. If employers maintain their payroll, the loans can be forgiven. This allows workers to remain employed, which in turn will help affected small businesses — and the economy — recover more quickly after the crisis.
• Economic Injury Disaster Loans and Emergency Economic Injury Grants. Emergency Economic Injury Grants provide an emergency advance of up to $10,000 to small businesses and private non-profits harmed by COVID-19 within three days of applying for an SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL). To access the advance, you must first apply for an EIDL and then request the advance. The advance does not need to be repaid under any circumstance, and may be used to keep employees on payroll, to pay for sick leave, meet increased production costs due to supply chain disruptions, or pay business obligations, including debts, rent and mortgage payments.
• Small Business Debt Relief Program. This program provides immediate relief to small businesses with non-disaster Small Business Association loans and microloans. Under it, the SBA will cover all loan payments on these SBA loans, including principal, interest and fees, for six months. This relief will also be available to new borrowers who take out loans within six months of the bill being signed into law.
The website also offers links to other financial life preservers for businesses, as well as to resources for communities and individuals seeking help to financially weather the coronavirus storm.
Kenney on Thursday was busy fielding phone calls and emails from local business owners needing advice on how to jump through the application hoops for financial assistance. He has a list of around 100 Addison County businesses of varying sizes that have expressed interest in state and federal aid. The ACEDC has already had email contact with all of them, and now Kenney and Addison County SBDC business Advisor Sarah Kearns are following up with phone calls to give them more individualized attention.
“These are just the ones that have contacted us, and more are contacting us every day,” Kenney said. “I had five calls literally this morning. We want to make sure they get what they need and understand what’s out there, because it’s kind of confusing.”

DIFFERENT FOR EVERY BUSINESS
Particularly confusing for business owners, according to Kenney, is how the use of one assistance program might affect their ability to use another. For example, there have been cases where an entrepreneur has laid off employees, but has just found out about the Payroll Protection Program and is now wondering about how to bring those workers back into the fold.
“It’s primarily questions about how the programs work, how they interact together, and what’s the best path for each business — which is different for every business,” Kenney said.
Ironically, the current availability of financial aid for laid-off/furloughed individuals is prompting some affected workers to stay at home instead of returning to the labor force, according to Kenney.
“For employees who are laid off or who have to stay home, the extra funding from the feds of $600 on top of the state’s unemployment benefit is great,” he said. “But for the businesses, it means you have a lot of people who are choosing to stay at home instead of coming back to work, if they can.”
Kenney said businesses and individuals seeking aid shouldn’t become discouraged by long phone queues and myriad application forms.
“There was a huge problem originally with the disaster loan application,” he said. “The SBA’s site crashed last week, but they’ve taken care of that. There were the initial problems with filing for unemployment. The Vermont Department of Labor has stepped up and added staff and another phone line, and allowed people to file by email. So that backlog has reduced.”
Patience is key. Kenney is asking business leaders to moderate their expectations, in terms of the deadlines being advanced for state and federal aid programs.
“If they say you’re going to get it in three days, don’t expect to get it in three days; it’s going to take a little longer,” he said.
He issued a reminder that these programs are now fielding more inquiries than current staff can handle. And in some cases, the programs are brand new and thus uncharted territory for those charged with administering them.
“I think the next bottleneck is going to be for this Payroll Protection Program,” Kenny said, noting the program is a new partnership between the SBA and lending institutions.

IT TAKES TIME
“People are going through the banks,” he said, “and I’m hearing they’re not going to be ready tomorrow (Friday) to take applications. Some of the lenders feel… they don’t have enough guidance form the U.S. Treasury yet.”
Kenney is concerned about enterprises — including farms — that were treading water even prior to the coronavirus.
“They may not make it because of the time it takes to actually get the resources,” he said. “One area that’s lacking so far in the federal response is for agriculture and farmers. There’s not a lot available for them. They can apply for the Payroll Protection Program, but that’s about it. They’re not eligible for the disaster loans, and I’m not sure that program is going to be very useful for them.
“What we’re hearing from farmers is there’s not a lot in the (federal stimulus) bill for them,” he added.
Still, Kenney finds cause for optimism. He believes most area businesses will survive the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to available aid and the good leadership they possess.
All the state’s regional development corporations were slated to meet on Friday, April 3, to look at the eventual economic recovery.
“We’ll be looking at how we can all work together to still work with all the businesses that need to go through the application processes for these programs, but then how we start preparing for the recovery, and what do we need that’s available for recovery,” he said. “We’re looking at how we can fill the current gap, but we’re also looking to make adjustments to our loan programs for the recovery period.”
Economic development leaders like Kenney have never seen anything like COVID-19. It’s forced them to shift from business development and recruitment, to business preservation.
“We’re trying to help businesses stay alive and maintain through this,” he said.
John Flowers is at [email protected].

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