By Mary Hladky and Jane Smith
As small-business owners reeled from shutdowns mandated to stop the spread of COVID-19, South County cities pitched in to help them offset calamitous revenue losses.
Responding to Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce pleas, the City Council on May 27 authorized spending $500,000 in city money on a Small Business Recovery Relief Grant program that would provide $5,000 grants to small businesses with at least three employees and no more than 25.
Council members debated over many weeks how to structure the program, and then were stunned when city officials said they would not be able to get the money out the door until late July — far too late to do much good, council members reasoned.
After they simplified the program so money could be doled out in June, the city began accepting applications online for grants that could be used for salaries, rent, utility payments or personal protective equipment.
But the expected deluge of applications didn’t happen, possibly because business owners applied for larger grants offered by Palm Beach County from federal CARES Act money it received, or because the city’s grant criteria were too strict.
City Manager Leif Ahnell said that as of June 5, the city had received 104 applications, but 80% did not meet the criteria. For example, 12% didn’t have a business in the city, 40% had too few employees, and 33% had received county or federal funding that made them ineligible.
The number of applications had grown to 119 by June 24, and the city had disbursed money to seven businesses. Two more would get grants soon, and Boca Raton was continuing to process applications.
Boynton Beach and its Community Redevelopment Agency gave out $1.06 million in loans that became grants if businesses showed they spent the money on rent, payroll or utilities within six months.
Under the programs approved by the CRA and City Commission on April 21, the CRA distributed $1 million to businesses within its borders in $10,000 allotments. The city gave out $60,000 in $3,000 allotments.
Boynton Beach also found another source of money to help businesses. It made available $300,000 in Community Development Block Grant money awarded to the city by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the CARES Act.
Officials offered businesses $10,000 grants that could be used to cover payroll, utilities, rent or mortgage and COVID-19-related expenses such as personal protective equipment and lost inventory. Businesses within the CRA area are not eligible to receive that money.
Businesses are qualified to receive the money if they have gross receipts under $3 million and 25 or fewer employees, and if they had not received any other coronavirus-related assistance. They could apply online beginning June 26, and David Scott, the city’s director of economic development and strategy, expected the money to go quickly.
The Delray Beach Downtown Development Authority on June 19 awarded 30 small businesses affected by the coronavirus shutdowns with $1,000 grants.
To be eligible, a business must have operated for at least five years, have 25 or fewer employees and be locally owned and operated.
The grant application period opened at 8 a.m. June 16 and ended at 11:59 p.m. June 17. The first to apply that met requirements were awarded the grants.
Mayor Shelly Petrolia said at the June 2 City Commission meeting that she preferred to use city tax dollars to support group ad buys.
“The grants to businesses are not really fair. They are more about who has the fastest computers,” she said. “Advertising for all would be better.”
The executive directors of the DDA and Greater Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce will return with marketing options in July.
Lantana did not launch a grant program but did implement certain fee waivers.
Fees for new permit applications are waived until Sept. 8; business tax receipt delinquency fees for fiscal 2020 are waived for businesses that become compliant before Sept. 8; restaurants can apply for temporary outdoor seating permits for surrounding off-street parking; and the city suspended penalties and stopped turning off water service due to non-payment.
Mary Thurwachter contributed to this story.