Loan Program Aims to Boost East Palestine Businesses

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – Nine months after the train derailment in the village, some business owners continue to question how they will operate.

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Jonathan D. McCracken, the Ohio state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Development office, along with Haeden Panezott, private sector group specialist with the Columbiana County Port Authority, announced yet another initiative to keep East Palestine businesses afloat.

The three men hope a USDA loan of up to $150,000, with a possible interest rate as low as 1%, will bolster businesses and economic development for East Palestine and the surrounding area. 

About 15 business owners reportedly met with Brown, McCracken and Panezott prior to the announcement, which took place at 1820 Candle Co.

Melissa Smith, co-owner of 1820 Candle Co., said Brown has kept in contact with her and other business owners over the past few months since the derailment, and she was happy he was continuing to look at ways to help those who still need it.

Although Smith’s business has been bolstered by online sales for several years, she said she speaks regularly with other business owners. Some have told her they have gone a whole week with hardly a sale at times since the derailment, which makes it very hard to pay staff and maintain inventory. The continued traffic from cleanup vehicles and dust from the project means fewer people in town.

Calling Smith’s shop that sells hand-poured candles “the best smelling place in East Palestine,” Brown said he has been speaking with those in the area, including farmers, business owners and medical professionals. Aside from the cleanup efforts and holding Norfolk Southern accountable, Brown says it is important to get people’s lives back to normal.

“A big part of doing that is helping local small businesses, entrepreneurs who want to start a business, small business, who want to grow their businesses. A number of them were here today,” Brown said. “And it’s John McCracken’s and my job to help this community grow and get back to normal, but there are a number of things that we need to do.”

McCracken detailed the program, which represents $500,000 available in total as revolving loans for small businesses in East Palestine and the surrounding area. Businesses can qualify for up to $150,000, applying through Valley Partners, which will be there locally to oversee the loans. Eligible businesses can have no more than 50 employees and revenues of $1 million or less.

“Really, the goal is to drive small business development, business startups, so it can be anything from capital to equipment. So we really think there is a great demand for this program in the community and the surrounding area,” said McCracken, who added that businesses across the border in Pennsylvania are included in this program. He also said paying back the loans can be set at five to 10 years. “This is something – not just for today, but for years to come – small businesses in the area will be able to access this revolving loan fund.”

This money is different from other programs that have been announced in East Palestine to help small businesses, including $5 million available through the East Palestine Emergency Support Program, which continues to work with business owners to gather required information so they can obtain some of the funding.

“With this new funding source, it’s an amazing opportunity for smaller businesses that still need a source of funds that can help them recover, and so we really thank Sen. Brown and the USDA, as well as Valley Partners, for sending this opportunity,” Panezott said.

Panezott said the funds can make up for the loss of sales, as East Palestine businesses continue to be hampered by the lack of traffic from Pennsylvania. Taggart Road continues to be open only during certain hours. Panezott said businesses need assistance with marketing and other ways to drive foot traffic back to local businesses.

Despite the dreary, rainy skies Saturday, the Village Merchant Fall Festival, coinciding with Fallidays in the Park and Apple Butter Day at the Log House Museum, was a bright spot for at least some business owners, such as Smith.

“We had a really nice turnout considering the weather, I thought,” Smith said. “When you have the weather situation that you have and all the activities at the park that were supposed to be scheduled, with hayrides and things like that, obviously that is going to be affecting the number of people coming. But it was nice to see a nice rotation of people coming in and out of our door, at least.”

The East Palestine Fire Department also is holding a Halloween Fall Festival in the Park on Oct. 28.

Pictured at top: From left are U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown; Melissa Smith, co-owner of 1820 Candle Co.; Jonathan D. McCracken, Ohio state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Development; and Haeden Panezott, private sector group specialist with the Columbiana County Port Authority.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.