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CARES Act funding helps businesses weather pandemic

ATHENA APPEARS TO enjoy her care at Comfort Hill Kennel in Vergennes, where boarding numbers have decreased significantly since the start of the pandemic. CARES Act funding through the Restart VT Technical Assistance program has allowed Comfort Hill to create alternative revenue streams by launching a digital marketing campaign and opening an online store.

These programs have helped Addison County businesses a lot, just to stay open, survive, and start to recover, but no amount of grants or loans are going to help if there’s no customers, so the next few months are going to be very telling.
— Fred Kenney, executive direction ACEDC

VERGENNES — The inside of Comfort Hill Kennel in Vergennes is filled with the sounds of barking dogs, buzzing grooming shears and scurrying paws. Given the craziness of the kennel, it’s hard to believe Comfort Hill is housing only a fraction of the number of dogs it typically does. However Comfort Hill’s co-owner and president, Linette Poquette, said that boarding numbers have been significantly lower since the start of the coronavirus pandemic this past March. 
“People are working from home so they’re not bringing their dogs as much, and they’re not going on vacation for obvious reasons, so they’re not booking their dogs,” said Poquette. “Last year for Thanksgiving we were completely full, and I had around 23 employees. This year, two people could manage this place. We were really down in numbers.” 
Comfort Hill Kennel is in a similar situation to many other Vermont businesses, struggling to stay open and make a profit despite challenges posed by the pandemic. Fortunately, businesses like the kennel have been able to tap funding and programs developed from a share of the $1.25 billion Vermont received in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act package that was signed into law last March. 
CARES Act funding has been allocated to Vermont businesses through various funding opportunities, one being the Restart VT Technical Assistance program. Funding for this program was distributed through the Agency of Commerce and Community Development to five different organizations throughout the state and has been reallocated to Vermont businesses in need of technical support. 
The kennel secured this technical assistance program through the Addison County Economic Development Corporation (ACEDC), one of the five Vermont organizations to receive CARES Act funding. Through the Restart VT Technical Assistance program Comfort Hill was paired with Insights Marketing Solutions, a Vermont-based marketing company, which allowed them to improve their online presence. 
“We have actually never really advertised. We’ve always just done word of mouth and we’ve always been pretty busy,” said Poquette. “Our business has been severely impacted by COVID and so we were just kind of looking for ways to increase our social media engagement and try to increase our online sales.” 
Using the technical assistance program allowed Comfort Hill to open an online pet supplies store and begin the first steps of digital marketing. 
The Restart VT Technical Assistance program is a Vermont-specific allocation of the CARES Act package. Additional funding for Vermont’s small businesses has come from federal funding opportunities such as the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) or Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL). These programs are administered through the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), which received federal funds through the CARES Act. 

PPP SUCCESS STORY
Vermont businesses like the Good Point Recycling in Middlebury have used these larger federal grants to get through toughest times forced by pandemic-mandated closings. 
Good Point Recycling was on a growth trajectory pre-pandemic, hoping to gain business from the state of Massachusetts Operational Services Division in July. At risk was a five-year, statewide contract that prequalifies service providers like Good Point to work for city government offices, schools, and other organizations, allowing them to order Good Point’s recycling services without going out for a formal bid. Good Point founder and CEO Robin Ingenthron said without the PPP loan, accepting this contract would not have been possible. 
“The PPP helped us get over that hump when we were going to have less money. We would have been laying people off at a time when our volume was set to double. If we hadn’t had that PPP in the second quarter, I would have probably had to turn down those contracts,” said Ingenthron. “Thanks to Michael Corbett (VEDA), Fred Kenney and Elizabeth Burdine (ACEDC), and Sarah Kearns (VT SBA), we were extremely well briefed on the SBA application process, compared to our clients and competitors in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.”
PPP loans and the Restart VT Technical Assistance program are only two of the various programs and funding opportunities available through CARES Act funding. Fred Kenney, executive director of the ACEDC, said that Vermont’s Recovery Grant Program is another significant way that local businesses have received funding during the pandemic. 
“Those (recovery grants) are going through the Vermont Agency of Commerce and the tax department. The first round of those grants went out over the summer, and several weeks ago they (Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development) closed round two of the recovery grants,” Kenney said. 

GETTING THE MONEY
Businesses apply for these recovery grants online, either through the Agency of Commerce or the Department of Taxes. Retailers, restaurants and other businesses collecting sales and use (S&U) taxes or meal and room (M&R) taxes apply through the Department of Taxes. Manufacturers and other types of businesses that do not collect S&U or M&R taxes apply through the Agency of Commerce. The Vermont Legislature approved two rounds of the Recovery Grant program, accounting for approximately $140 million in business grants for Vermont firms. 
While CARES Act funding and programs have helped local businesses survive the past eight months, Kenney said that community members will need to continue supporting these businesses in order to keep them open. 
“These programs have helped Addison County businesses a lot, just to stay open, survive, and start to recover, but no amount of grants or loans are going to help if there’s no customers, so the next few months are going to be very telling,” said Kenney, adding that Addison County residents can make an appreciable difference in the fate of area stores.
“Keep supporting your local businesses however you can, and shop local and stay safe.” 

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