Grants could help businesses

A customer browses at Hey Gorgeous, a clothing shop on Main Street in the town of Louisa.

Louisa County is looking for ways to help small businesses recover from the coronavirus.

Andy Wade, the county’s economic development director, said he is working on programs to offer grants to business owners and to help them sell their products on the internet. 

Wade plans to present the grant concept to the Louisa County Board of Supervisors for consideration at an upcoming meeting. 

The county could use a portion of the $3.2 million it received through the federal CARES coronavirus relief bill to pay for the grants, as long as the money is used by December. County Administrator Christian Goodwin said the county could set aside as much as $750,000 of the CARES funds for this purpose.

How much aid a business can get and other aspects of the grant program are still being worked out. Wade said he would like to call it the Louisa Opportunity Fund, the name he previously gave to a loan program for businesses he introduced in early 2019. The loan initiative was never formally approved by the board.

“This is the right time to launch it,” Wade said. 

The program could convert to issuing loans later, but right now the best approach is to offer grants to struggling restaurants and other businesses, he said. Grants could be used for a variety of needs, such as outdoor seating or personal protective equipment.

Several other localities in the region have launched business loan programs, including Albemarle and Fluvanna counties. The Charlottesville-based nonprofit Community Investment Collaborative is managing the programs on the counties’ behalf; Wade said that could be a good approach for Louisa as well. The collaborative charges a fee for the service.

The Fluvanna program offered loans of up to $5,000, with a two-year repayment period at a one percent interest rate. In Albemarle and Charlottesville, businesses could apply for loans of up to $10,000, with three years to pay them back.

Some Louisa companies and nonprofits have been able to keep themselves afloat with help from the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal bill targeting small businesses. Loans obtained through the bill convert to grants, as long as recipients commit to keeping staff paid for a period of time. 

Wade is also working with the Central Virginia Small Business Development Center and the University of Virginia on a project to give Louisa businesses a platform where they can sell products on the internet.

Project Propel began as an effort by the University of Virginia to create new internships for undergraduate and graduate students during the pandemic. Three students will be assigned to set up Louisa’s version of the website.

Wade said he and his partners are applying to Go Virginia, a statewide economic development initiative, for $170,000 to support the project in Louisa and several neighboring counties. The county would use $10,000 from its budget as a local match.

“I think it’s worthwhile if even one of our businesses finds it to be a success,” Wade said.

Tracy Hale Clark, Louisa County Chamber of Commerce executive director, said she isn’t sure yet how many of her members would benefit from the site. Some retailers have grown very savvy in their use of online products, while others use them much less, if at all.

“I need to know if our businesses will use it,” she said. “Everybody’s kind of on a different plane.”

The Louisa County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously at their June 1 meeting to fund the e-commerce site with funds from the CARES Act, if possible. County Administrator Christian Goodwin said he is still researching what specific programs the federal money can be used for.

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