Approximately $8 million in federal funding for coronavirus relief is one step closer to the pockets of Crow Wing County businesses and nonprofits.

The Crow Wing County Board Tuesday, July 28, approved a plan to distribute dollars from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. After $1.5 million expected to be applied toward reimbursing the county’s expenses, the program includes $3 million toward grants for businesses, $1.5 million for broadband expansion and $1 million for nonprofits grants. An additional $1 million could be shifted to any of those categories, depending on need.

Businesses and nonprofits impacted by COVID-19 may apply for up to $10,000 in grant funding between Aug. 17 and Sept 18.

Business grants will be limited to those with 50 or fewer employees that were temporarily closed due to executive orders from Gov. Tim Walz. Applicants must have a physical commercial location in Crow Wing County, whether owned or leased. The principal business owner must be a Minnesota resident.

Those ineligible for business grant funds are those providing professional services, such as accountants or attorneys, and those who primarily generate income from gambling activities.

As for nonprofit grants, eligible entities include those who can demonstrate an increase in demand for services or expenses due to COVID-19. The organization may also apply if it can make an impact for individuals or the community in response to the coronavirus or related issues. Nonprofits must also have a physical location in Crow Wing County and must have been operating since March 1, 2019. Those ineligible are religious organizations without a social services component.

CARES Act fund will also support three broadband expansion projects in the county: for Camp Vanasek in Baxter and the surrounding area, an area surrounding Borden Lake including the township halls of Bay Lake and Garrison, and a corridor along County Highway 13 in Lake Edward Township. Commissioner Rosemary Franzen, who asked for the latter project to be included, said Tuesday officials with the township were willing to commit their own CARES Act funds to the broadband expansion.

County Administrator Tim Houle said last week applying these funds toward broadband expansion would not only better equip residents for the new realities of virtual communication, it would be an investment outlasting the pandemic. With social distancing playing a major role in the response, the demand to connect virtually for distance learning or telework has increased dramatically.

The funding will go to CTC telecommunications company, which will also receive funds to cover the cost of providing Wi-Fi access points throughout the community to aid in distance learning efforts and COVID-related broadband installations completed from March to May. CTC CEO Kristi Westbrock said Monday they were in the process of surveying customers to determine how many of those new installations were directly related to needs associated with telework, distance learning or telemedicine.

The measure passed 4-1 with Commissioner Doug Houge opposed. Houge voted against the package because he said he didn’t think it was fair to offer CARES Act dollars only to CTC, when he thought other providers would be interested in pursuing broadband projects in the county.

“We’ve got, how many, four or five providers up there that I know would have projects if this is a definite allowable use of these dollars,” Houge said. “I think it’s only fair that we give them the opportunity to utilize those if they’re comfortable that it’s an allowable use. It just seems like we’re pushing this through without all of the information.”

There was some question as to whether applying CARES Act funding to broadband expansion would be an allowed use of those dollars. Westbrock previously said she’d done the legwork to help ensure it would pass an audit and committed to paying the money back if it became necessary, although there was no official word giving it the OK.

Houle said the contingency dollars could potentially be used for other companies’ broadband projects.

“There is still the potential to do some additional project work and … consistent with what the board’s action, or discussion I should say, was yesterday, I am reaching out to the other telecommunications companies,” he said. “ … What I’m suggesting is, that door’s not closed yet. It’s a pretty tight timeframe. It has to be in the ground by Dec. 1st.”

Houge said with $1.5 million set aside for CTC alone and $1 million in the contingency fund, the other companies would receive much smaller amounts if it was determined to be an allowable use. He said he agreed with all the other aspects of the CARES Act funding program, but was concerned the board was making a decision too quickly on the broadband piece.

Franzen said she thought Houle was doing a good job contacting providers and noted CTC was the only company stating it would pay back funds if the use was not allowed. Houge reiterated he thought that point should be nailed down.

“Well, I think this is a great opportunity,” Franzen said.

“I’m not saying it isn’t a great opportunity, I’m saying let’s make it fair to all the providers,” Houge replied.

“It is,” Franzen said.

“I don’t believe it is,” Houge replied.

Chairman Paul Koering suggested he’d postpone the matter until the next county board meeting. Houge said he still wanted to move forward on the other items. Franzen made a motion to approve the plan, which was seconded by Commissioner Steve Barrows.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.