Local Businesses Turn to Local Relief Funds

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In a year that’s challenged businesses like never before, leaders often took help from wherever they could find it. And while most discussions around relief for businesses focused on the Paycheck Protection Program, which had disbursed $762.4 billion as of April 18, local governments also offered aid to companies within their jurisdictions.

Mahoning and Trumbull counties each offered their own grant programs, which were administered by Valley Economic Development Partners. Likewise, the city of Youngstown made $220,000 in grants available to businesses.

Across the state line, Mercer County offered two grant programs to businesses through Penn-Northwest Development Corp.: a community development block grant and the COVID Hospitality Industry Relief Program.

Across the area, the funds were widely used.

In Mercer County, Penn-Northwest got more than 60 applications for the hospitality grant, which had a total of $2.4 million available from the state, and 18 applications for the block grant, available to businesses with revenue under $1 million located in the county, except for its three cities – Sharon, Hermitage and Farrell.

“If they got PPP money for a particular period, we can’t double up on that period. Payroll for a different period or different expenses they didn’t apply for – mortgages, rent, [protective equipment]” were the targets of the county grants, says Rod Wilt, executive director of Penn-Northwest. “These local programs fit around the bigger programs. They’re in addition to them, but not a duplication.”

After coming to the economic development organization last fall, Wilt says he put much of Penn-Northwest’s focus on supporting local businesses and ensuring the companies that are already in Mercer County can survive the “onslaught of the pandemic.

“As the lead economic development agency in Mercer County, the county recognized that and connected with us for the Chirp program,” Wilt says. “It fit into our mission for 2021 of job retention and job growth coming out of the pandemic for the companies that have already invested in Mercer County.” 

At Valley Economic Development Partners, Executive Director Teresa Miller says her organization had “no problem getting out each penny the counties made available to us.”

The grant programs available to businesses in Mahoning and Trumbull counties ended Dec. 31. The final count: 362 relief grants totaling $3,409,924 for Mahoning County businesses and 112 grants for $987,584 for those in Trumbull County.

“It was all over the board: restaurants, automotive, hotels. It was all sorts of businesses. It wasn’t concentrated in any one sector,” Miller says.

Valley Economic Development Partners also processed PPP loans and received $3.6 million from the Economic Development Administration in July to create a revolving loan fund. As of early April, all funds had been approved by Valley Partners’ loan committee. Despite juggling a handful of relief programs, each with its own requirements and criteria, it was largely in an area Valley Partners’ staff has experience in.

“PPP was the main project for us, but these smaller loan funds were more business as usual,” Miller says. “We came up with a plan with each county on what they wanted us to look at and what they wanted to use as guidelines. A lot of it was along the lines of our existing programs. So while we were certainly busier, it was still business as usual.”

With the American Rescue Plan Act starting to be implemented, the attention now turns to the next round of relief funds. Mahoning County Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti and one of her Trumbull County counterparts, Frank Fuda, say while the counties will get federal funding through the relief bill, they aren’t yet sure how much – if any – can be allotted toward pandemic relief. But, Rimedio-Righetti and Fuda agree, if the funds can be used for business loans and grants, a program will be available.

“Portions have to go toward infrastructure and bridges and broadband; [Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office] didn’t really give us a full idea of what we’d be totally allowed to do with that money. I’m sure that if it’s something we can do and there’s need, we’ll address it again,” Rimedio-Righetti says.

In Trumbull County, Fuda points toward the results of the first program as evidence that the relief is needed.

“Any time a lot of money is taken, it tells you a lot of businesses are suffering right now. We don’t want them to fail. So we’re doing our best to try to offer help, whether it’s from the state or federal level,” he says. “If there’s money available to keep them operating during the bad times, we want to make sure we’re able to offer that.”

Over the past year, local relief has gone beyond just making money available. Organizations like the Economic Action Group and the West Central Job Partnership have worked to connect businesses to resources that can help them weather the storm.

Across both rounds of PPP, the Youngstown-based Economic Action Group reached out to more than 5,000 businesses – partnering with the Mahoning County commissioners, the cities of Youngstown and Warren, and Liberty Township – to direct them toward federal relief funds. The organization sent out mailers, made phone calls and met with business leaders.

“I can’t understate how important PPP was. It was a critical resource people could access in broad strokes. But local resources from the cities, counties and state were much more approachable,” says Nick Chretien, program manager for Economic Action Group. “There was more access and many times they were more keyed in on what business owners needed. Sometimes the guidelines and restrictions on bigger programs prevented people from accessing certain funds.”

In western Pennsylvania, the West Central Job Partnership continued its job training programs during the pandemic, helping businesses get their employees industry credentials while providing training and job connections to those who were unemployed.

The demand for workers, says Eric Karmecy, the agency’s division chief, is greater than before the pandemic. He points to New Castle, Pa., where West Central Job Partnership records show 300 available jobs in March 2020. At the end of March 2021, he says, there were 800. Throughout the area West Central Job Partnership works in – Mercer and Lawrence counties – “those numbers are at least 25% higher in every city,” he says.

And whether it’s ensuring workers are job-ready or that businesses have the funds to stay afloat, local relief has steadied the business landscape.

“The relief is important, especially in the retail and restaurant businesses. We’ve heard from several restaurants that they’re struggling. We know of several that closed permanently, unfortunately,” Karmecy says. “Any sort of assistance is critical to keep companies afloat and help them weather the storm. We need to sustain the business base here so we have jobs for people.”