Program aims to help small businesses

Watertown City Hall. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — Local small businesses still digging out from financial problems caused by the pandemic soon will get help, thanks to federal funding from the federal CARES Act.

The City Council has set aside between $400,000 and $450,000 in grants from CARES Act money that will go toward helping financially struggling small businesses get through the pandemic.

Back in January, council members directed the Planning Department to put together the program after hearing businesses in the city were in need of help, rather than spending the brunt of the $720,000 in CARES Act funding on other programs.

City planners have talked to officials in Rochester, Auburn and Dunkirk, near Buffalo, to see how they implemented programs for small businesses with CARES Act funding.

City planner Geoffrey T. Urda said he hopes the program will be rolled out in early summer.

“We want businesses to be aware of the program so they’re ready to submit an application,” he said.

The city’s Planning Department and the Watertown Local Development Corp. are still working on the parameters of the program.

Businesses must be located in the city, be independently owned and not a franchise or corporately-owned chain to qualify. They also must have been in operation prior to Jan. 1, 2020, must still be open today, have fewer than 25 employees and must retain at least one employee from the grant.

The funding could be used for unpaid working capital expenses such as rent, insurance, utilities and other accounts payable. Businesses would not be able to use the grants for funding payroll, so it would not duplicate the federal Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, said Michael A. Lumbis, the city planning and community development director.

The amount of the grants has not been determined yet, but Auburn distributed $3,000 to $5,000 grants to about 50 small businesses to help them survive the financial crisis caused by the pandemic.

While planning staff would largely administer the program work with the comptroller’s office to oversee distribution of funds, the local development corporation, also known as the Watertown Trust, would handle taking applications and vetting processes before providing the city with an approval recommendation for each application.

Watertown Trust CEO Donald W. Rutherford said he’s not sure how many businesses would apply for the program.

“We’ll have to wait and see until it gets rolled out,” he said. “I really don’t know.”

In July, Congress approved the CARES Act program to help communities get through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The CDBG funding came from the $2 trillion stimulus package to help municipalities get through the coronavirus crisis.

The CARES Act money is also providing four organizations with $25,000 each for their food pantries and backpack programs. The city has set aside $100,000 for the Salvation Army, Community Action Planning Council, the Urban Mission for food pantries and United Way for its student food backpack program through the city school district.

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