Benton County provides funding for local businesses affected by the pandemic

An illustration of downtown Corvallis. 

Kelsy Valentine, News Contributor

Jack Wolcott, co-owner of Grassroots Books and Music in Downtown Corvallis, owns one of the many businesses in Benton County who’s needed to apply for funding assistance during the pandemic.

Earlier this year, Grassroots applied for the Payroll Protection Program, meaning that the U.S. government loans them money if they agree not to lay off any of their staff. If the business successfully keeps its payroll at its current level, their loans are then forgiven. This program has helped Grassroots keep their employees, something that’s taken a lot of stress off the owners.

“We’ve been extremely fortunate as a retail business to be considered an essential business so we can stay open, but a lot of customers did not want to come out to shop in-store,” Wolcott said. “But we had a lot of business on our website… and it’s been a lot more work than we thought it would be, so we need our staff to help us fulfill online orders.”

Grassroots, however, is not the only business that’s needed to seek additional funding due to the pandemic. In fact, business is so rough that Benton County is distributing money to local businesses through the CARES Act to help small businesses facing hardship.

“We hope that these small business grants help businesses stay afloat and maintain some level of employment until the COVID-19 vaccine can be distributed widely in our area,” said Kate Porsche, economic development manager for the Corvallis Benton County Economic Development Office. “Widespread vaccine distribution will accelerate efforts to reopen the local economy and return to some version of “normal” in 2021 and beyond.”

The need for these funds can be seen best in the tourism industry, which has been affected greatly due to the fear of COVID-19.

“There isn’t any area [of tourism] that hasn’t been impacted in some form,” said Christina Rehklau, executive director of Visit Corvallis. “Traditional lodging such as hotels/motels, meetings and event partners, performance halls, retailers and restaurants are the businesses that have been hurt the most.”

The only aspects of tourism that weren’t hit as hard were outdoor partners and non-traditional lodging such as Airbnb, where experiences can be offered in a somewhat secluded way.

This, in turn, has a big effect on spending in Corvallis and especially at local businesses. While the estimated visitor spending is not yet available for the entire year of 2020, the amount of spending up until October of this year can be compared to the same period during 2019.

“At the end of October 2020, traditional Corvallis lodging properties (hotels/motels) revenues were down 55% compared to 2019,” Rehklau said. “This decrease amounted to over $11 million lost revenue for the year through the end of October.”

However, since the summer, local, county and state funding programs have given out just over $2 million to help local businesses get back on their feet. Additionally, most current grants are also focusing on businesses owned by minorities.

“Research on the impacts of the virus has shown that minority populations are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, both in the rate of infection and the economic impacts, meaning our minority business owners and minority families are doubly burdened by the effects of COVID-19,” Porsche said. “Additionally, some minority business owners have not been eligible for federal funding or previous rounds of funding earlier this year.”

Aside from the business grants, Rehklau explained that Visit Corvallis is also attempting to encourage spending at local businesses through many means, including encouraging safe staycations. They launched a virtual Advent Calendar Scavenger Hunt at the beginning of December that enters anyone who guesses a local business correctly based on a daily clue into a drawing in which they can win gift cards to local businesses. A Mid-Willamette Valley Food Trail Box has also been started to highlight local producers.

According to Rehklau, in the upcoming months of January and February they will be running more campaigns that direct people on ways to support local businesses. Information for these campaigns can be found on their website and social media. 

Despite these efforts, many local businesses may still be having trouble staying afloat. Businesses who are struggling with funding can find Federal, State, and Local resources at the website for the Corvallis Benton County Economic Development Office. Additionally, e-newsletters containing new and important information are available to anyone who signs up by emailing [email protected].

Businesses that need additional funding are also encouraged to apply for business grants as soon as possible. 

“The [most recent] grant opportunities available in Benton County [were] funded through the CARES Act, which [expired] at the end of December,” Porsche said. “However, we are hopeful that additional aid will be on the way from Congress in early 2021. If new assistance arrives, we will begin outreach to connect businesses with those opportunities.” 

Many businesses, however, can rely only on the holiday season being profitable to keep them going. For the past three months, Wolcott has been concerned about needing to close Grassroots during Christmas if one of the employees were to test positive for the coronavirus. Wolcott said that closing during the Christmas season would have ruined the company but, fortunately, they have so far been able to remain open. 

“Our staff has been very good,” Wolcott said. “I just appreciate how responsible and supportive our staff has been while following through with the COVID-19 guidelines.”

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