Grant provides $4.1 million to 800 county businesses affected by state safety orders

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published March 4, 2021

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MACOMB COUNTY — A recent grant has positively impacted 800 small businesses in Macomb County.

The county received $4.1 million in grant monies, with funds coming from the state and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation via the Michigan Small Business Survival Grant Program. Approximately $52.5 million were allocated to businesses across Michigan.

The grant’s intention was to assist businesses that, as the MEDC described, “experienced significant financial hardship” due to emergency orders pertaining to masks and gatherings as issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in November and December of last year.

Macomb County Planning and Economic Development Director Vicky Rowinski said she and others first heard rumblings about this possible grant opportunity around Christmastime.

A four-day window was executed between Jan. 20 and 24 to allow businesses with 100 or fewer employees to apply, receiving aid for rent, utilities, payrolls and keeping businesses afloat.

More than 3,200 county businesses applied, with Rowinski acknowledging “it was a pretty tough decision” to decide which businesses would receive money. Priorities were extended to businesses directly impacted by statewide orders — notably restaurants, gyms and fitness centers, indoor entertainment venues like bowling alleys, and some retail outlets.

The county utilized a scoring rubric, with businesses receiving additional “points” for certain criteria — such as how long they have been in business and how many employees they have. Additional parameters included a focus on storefront, brick-and-mortar businesses.

As of Feb. 25, all 800 selected businesses had received their checks.

Rowinski said her department initiated a survey toward the end of 2020 to get an idea of the inner workings of the local retail and hospitality sector, consisting of mainly establishments only offering carry-out services as ordered by law.

The county sent the survey to 600 restaurants and received a 50% response rate, with 200 restaurants saying they wouldn’t be able to sustain their businesses with only carry-out orders.

“It’s the results of those surveys that kind of reside in the back of our minds,” Rowinski said.

Those businesses’ third-biggest concern was employee retention, in terms of laying off employees and bringing some back — only to potentially lay them off again.

Roundtable discussions have taken place recently among professional services and engineering-based businesses that are finding difficulty in the virtual landscape. Professional services that work in manufacturing are having trouble hiring individuals for entry-level positions, Rowinski said, and the battle is tougher when some individuals on the market are incentivizing unemployment insurance.

Last year’s Online Business Connect grant program, made possible through CARES Act funding, revealed to officials that about one in four businesses possesses no online presence. Rowinski called it a program that could return in the future to connect businesses to industry professionals proficient in online marketing.

The local industrial market currently has a 2% vacancy rate, and projects are commonly turned away due to inventory.

“As soon as an industry hits the market, it’s pretty quick to get off the market,” she said.

On the bright side, some local cities — such as Mount Clemens, as iterated by their Downtown Development Authority — had a “great” Christmas season, and some stores had record holiday sales.

Big-box stores and franchises in strip mall markets remain a quandary, as are office spaces.

Macomb County does not have a huge metropolitan downtown with skyscrapers like opposing communities, Rowinski said, but pockets of office buildings do exist.

However, the pandemic is causing many businesses to adjust, and some may not need square footage. It is causing some to deliberate how the next 6-12 months will impact lease agreements and maybe lead to more permanent remote work settings.

The county continues to monitor what is happening in Washington, D.C., as part of the impending COVID-19 relief package, in which communities may see more grant money available.

Vaccinations would help increase purveyors of local businesses, Rowinski said. Employers are wanting to be part of the solution, she added, as large suppliers — such as those in automotive manufacturing — want to present themselves as sites for vaccine distribution for their employees and their families.

“It’s great to see how our businesses can kind of step in the gap. … There’s definitely going to be a level of comfort (due to vaccinations),” she said. “We’ve been living in a fear of the unknown.”