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Steele County businesses can apply for grants from the county to cover expenses and lost revenue that was caused by Gov. Tim Walz’s latest executive orders. Rice County’s program will likely be approved Tuesday. (File photo/southernminn.com)

On Monday, bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues that have been hit hard by Minnesota’s COVID-19 restrictions were allowed to reopen. Now, they’re set to get another boost from the state, as counties prepare to distribute more than $100 million in business assistance grants.

In Steele County, businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic are already applying for grants from the county. In Rice County, staff have been working on the program application and will hash out some of the details with county commissioners at the Jan. 12 board meeting.

Together, the two counties received about $2 million from the Legislature’s economic relief package passed in December to support businesses and nonprofits that have been directly or indirectly impacted by Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders.

“The county program is intended to pick up some of the local needs that were missed by the state’s direct payments,” said Steele County Administrator Scott Golberg.

At approximately $114 million, the funding designated for each of Minnesota’s 87 counties to set up their own business and nonprofit assistance programs constituted just over half of the state’s stimulus package. Dollars were allocated on a per-capita basis, with a minimum amount of $256,250 per county.

Bars, restaurants and other businesses that provide on-site food and beverages were also given direct payments of $10,000 to $45,000, depending on the number of people they employ. About $88 million was allocated for that assistance, with an additional $14 million going to convention centers and theaters.

This certainly won’t be the first round of assistance for many businesses applying for grants. Last year, millions were allocated to businesses by Rice and Steele Counties as well as the cities of Northfield, Owatonna and Faribault.

However, because these dollars used to fund these grants are not tied to the federal CARES Act, they can be spent in a much more flexible manner. By contrast, CARES Act dollars were subject to strict restrictions on how they could be allocated and used. Under state guidelines, all dollars in the new program must be awarded by March 15 and spent by April 1. Businesses must also demonstrate that they are located in the applicable county and have no tax liens on file with the state.

The list of expenses that the dollars can be used for is long and broad. It includes payroll, rent, property taxes, insurance costs, building repairs and even marketing/advertising expenses. Each county has leeway to determine the number of recipients and how much each should get based on a variety of factors.

Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson said that as soon as Rice County’s application process is finalized, the Chamber will spread the word among local businesses and provide help with applications, if needed.

“So many of (our businesses) are in dire need right now as they try to keep up with ordinary expenses,” he said. “Hopefully this money will be able to be deployed fairly swiftly to those who need it most.”

In Steele County, the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism is already spreading the word. On Tuesday morning, the Chamber hosted a joint Zoom call with county officials and local business owners to answer any questions they might have.

“We really want people to utilize it,” said Chamber President Brad Meier.

Businesses that have received prior financial assistance from the federal and state governments as well as those who have not are welcome to apply. Styles on 4th in downtown Faribault is among the local businesses that received assistance during previous rounds.

Barbershops and beauty salons have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, and Styles on 4th is no exception. Owner Barb Reinhard said that many of her traditional customers, especially those who are older or at an elevated risk of contracting COVID, are hesitant to come in.

As Styles on 4th is effectively a one-person shop, it’s not likely to get a particularly large allocation from the county’s program. Still, Reinhard said that previous grants have played a key role in helping her to pay the bills.

On the other side of town, Bashers Sports Bar and Grill could be in line for a larger grant, with a significant amount of employees, some of who have been temporarily laid off as the restaurant industry was hit hard by restrictions.

Bashers was able to reopen Monday, with a capacity of 25% for bowling and 50% for dining. Owner Don Clayton said that a grant would help, even though Bashers remains in a difficult position and a grant isn’t likely to come close to making up for what it lost due to the pandemic.

“After the two shutdowns we’ve endured, we are in desperate need of any money that we can get,” he said.

In Steele County, applications for the grants in Steele County will be accepted until 5 p.m., Feb. 12. Applications can be found on Steele County’s website, co.steele.mn.us.

The grants don’t have a maximum amount, but businesses are required to provide justification for the amount they request and may receive less than their requested amount.

County officials didn’t set a maximum amount because they want to get all of the money out to the businesses as there isn’t enough time to do a second round of grants before the state’s deadlines, Golberg said.

Reach Associate Editor Lisa Kaczke at 507-444-2371. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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