Back to business | News
Drive downtown in Springfield and you will see the impact of the pandemic. Shuttered restaurants and stores, unkempt sidewalks and scant foot traffic all point to a city struggling to bounce back from years of a struggling economy as well as COVID-19. A new statewide pandemic relief program seeks to reach small businesses that were not always prioritized in previous grant cycles.
“Ensuring that small businesses are active and thriving is super important as far as the economic landscape in Springfield,” said Dominic Watson, president of the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce.
The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (IDCEO) launched the “Back 2 Business” grant program Aug. 18. It provides grants to small businesses that have experienced economic losses because of the pandemic. With a $250 million pot of money in all, the state will award grants in increments of $5,000 to $150,000 per business, or up to $250,000 for a hotel. The funds can be used for operational expenses including staffing and overhead. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis.
Tracey Smith, director of community health at Illinois Public Health Association (IPHA), said grants will not be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Rather, applicants will be ranked on whether they fall under certain categories.
Businesses given priority include those that have not previously received federal or state recovery money, that made less than $5 million in revenue in 2019, that are located in hard-hit areas and those in hard-hit sectors, such as the food industry. Dry-cleaning service, arts and entertainment are other examples of sectors considered hard hit.
To reach, educate and support business owners applying for the grant, the state awarded funds through the Community Navigator program, which partners with community organizations for outreach, education and to provide one-on-one technical and logistical support for applicants.
“There is a level of disconnect and a level of distrust as it relates to small businesses and government and that’s why this program is so important, because we are trusted in our community,” said Watson, who is partnered with the Community Navigator program.
IPHA, Innovate Springfield, Springfield Chamber of Commerce, Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce and the Migrant Council are some of the partners committed to on-the-ground efforts to reach small business owners who fit the program’s priorities.
Previous programs such as the federal Paycheck Protection Program and the state’s Business Interruption Grant (BIG) helped some businesses survive. But many applicants were not granted assistance. IDCEO awarded more than $275 million dollars in grants through BIG, according to IDCEO’s website. On Jan. 29, Capitol News Illinois reported that the grant program awarded 8,974 recipients, which was only about 20% of applicants.
While the demand for support was far greater than available funds, the BIG program application process also had flaws that left many from successfully completing the application. Criticisms of BIG included that it did not provide clear guidelines on paperwork requirements and a lack of feedback if an application was incomplete.
Alyson Grady, central regional manager for IDCEO said at a Sept. 1 press conference in Springfield that this new program, Back 2 Business, aims to address some of BIG’s issues and to reach businesses most in need. The new program streamlines the documentation requirements and has an online feature letting applicants see the status of their applications.
Details needed to file an application for the Back 2 Business grant include identification records of the business owner, a bank statement and tax returns. Applicants are encouraged to apply early since money is expected to run out before the Oct. 13 application deadline.
Businesses owners who want help with applications or who have questions about the program can visit Lincoln Library in Springfield, 326 S. 7th St., on the following dates:
• Sept. 10, 10 a.m.-12 p.m.
• Sept. 13, 10 a.m.-12 p.m. and 5 p.m.-7 p.m.
• Sept. 15, 10 a.m.-12 p.m. and 5 p.m.-7 p.m.
• Sept. 17, 10 a.m.-12 p.m.
Appointments can be made by calling 217-843-1598 or by email, at [email protected].
Maria Gardner is a graduate student with the Public Affairs Reporting program based at University of Illinois Springfield. Her work has appeared in South Side Weekly in Chicago and Laredo Morning Times in Texas.