A second round of grants for businesses and nonprofits experiencing hardship due to COVID-19 received Crow Wing County Board approval Tuesday, Oct. 13, after requests accounted for less than two-thirds of the money set aside for the program.

Commissioners also agreed to expand criteria by removing the limit on employee numbers for private businesses, along with accepting applications from organizations that provided free child care to essential workers and public and private schools for expenses not already covered by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

The first iteration of the grant program, which sought to pass along to the community dollars the county received from the coronavirus relief program, resulted in the preliminary approval of applications for 182 small businesses, totaling $1.7 million, and 63 nonprofit organizations, totaling $600,000. As part of the framework for the program approved in July, however, the county board agreed to set aside $3 million toward business grants and $1 million for nonprofits, meaning there is a significant chunk of change left to distribute. Organizations with a physical location in Crow Wing County may request up to $10,000 in relief funds.

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How to apply

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Grants of up to $10,000 will be awarded to eligible applicants to help Crow Wing County small businesses and nonprofit organizations cover operational expenses lost since March 1.

For more information on eligibility criteria, answers to frequently asked questions and to apply, visit https://bit.ly/3jXm38f.

The application deadline for the second round of grants is Oct. 23.

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“We did hear from a few places of people who said, we’re not going to apply because we think other people need it more than we do. Not that they didn’t have needs, not that they didn’t suffer from business interruption, but that’s the quintessential Minnesota nice,” said Tim Houle, Crow Wing County administrator, after Tuesday’s meeting. “We wanted them to understand there is sufficient funds here for you to apply. You do not need to suffer in silence.”

Combined with dollars contributed to the county pot by other cities and townships, there is about $2 million left to give to small businesses and $560,000 for nonprofits as part of the second round, the application period for which closes Oct. 23. A special county board meeting will be 9 a.m. Nov. 3 to approve the second phase of business and nonprofit award recommendations. County commissioners will also consider and approve the applications for day care cost reimbursement and local school unreimbursed expenses.

“Our board has been very concerned about the economic impact to our small businesses during the pandemic. We remain focused to helping them provide important jobs and resources to our community,” stated Crow Wing County Board Chairman Steve Barrows in a news release. “Our local nonprofits play a vital role in building healthy communities by providing critical services for our residents. We hope these grants can provide some relief during these stressful times.”

Houle said a potential second phase of grantmaking was part of the board’s considerations from the start, noting the unusual circumstances presented by the pandemic represented the first occasion in his time in government he’s been involved in granting public dollars to private businesses. He said opening the funds to additional businesses and impacted organizations was a natural next step.

“In the case of the YMCA, that was a $200,000 bill for a nonprofit in our community, doing the right thing,” Houle said, referencing the organization’s effort to provide day care for essential workers this spring. “They didn’t have to do that. Nobody asked them to do it, they just did it anyway. I think we want to try to plug that hole for them if we can.”

Houle said the county’s school districts, while eligible for funds directly themselves, have experienced tremendous upheaval while faced with the task of developing multiple new learning models last spring and this fall.

“They have suffered a great deal of disruption and they are probably suffering the most disruption right now,” Houle said. “… We’re asking, do you have any other unmet, unbudgeted COVID needs? And it’s going to help us to gauge how big of a gap is there.”

Behind the applications

Kim Rollins, executive director of Lakes Area United Way, oversaw the nonprofit granting process. Rollins said she was appreciative of the fact Crow Wing County would continue trying to get the funding into the hands of area community members, rather than leaving it on the table. Rollins noted while there was a good showing from nonprofits in the Brainerd/Baxter area along with Nisswa and Crosslake, she’s hoping organizations in other areas of the county will apply for the assistance, too.

“Garrison, Fort Ripley and Breezy Point are all areas that just didn’t have a great showing,” Rollins said Tuesday. “I’d really encourage the community to really think about the ways this can help, and if they want to connect with me, I am more than happy to talk with nonprofits to help them walk through the application process.”

Rollins said reviewing the applications so far has given her the chance to see the innovation at work in the community as organizations respond to the crisis. One example was the Food Shelf Coalition, a consortium of five local food shelves seeking to purchase a commercial refrigeration system. Having access to this type of storage, which will be located at the Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen, will allow more perishable donations to be stored, Rollins said. This will increase the capacity of food shelves, which have reported an increase in need as the economic impacts of the pandemic continue.

Rollins also noted area chambers of commerce are eligible for this funding, while previously those organizations were excluded from a number of other financial assistance programs.

“They’re very involved in getting all the communication out to the business members and nonprofits about the funding,” Rollins said. “We’re very thankful that Crow Wing County allowed for funding to be applicable for them.”

On the business side, Tyler Glynn, Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp. executive director, echoed Houle in noting many businesses’ desires to ensure their neighbor gets help, even before they help themselves. He said he hopes those who abstained the first time will see there is more to go around.

“That was so, so eye-opening to me, that people were saying, ‘I know I need it but somebody needs it worse than me,’” Glynn said. “It’s crazy to me that people are still, to this day, thoughtful, and they’re looking out for each other and they’re trying to let everybody get help.”

Glynn said it’s been disheartening to see the impacts so many business owners in the community are up against, such as the small fitness centers that are seeing their memberships drop off substantially, even after being allowed to reopen. He said ensuring the $5 million granted by the federal program stay in Crow Wing County is his top concern.

“It’s also exposed us to a lot of really wonderful individuals, a lot of hardworking people that are looking at not leaving any stone unturned to access resources and funds that are going to help them weather that storm and help them get through this. … I know it’s going to be tough when the winter months hit and some of the tourists leave,” Glynn said. “ … More than anything the goal is to keep this money in Crow Wing County and hopefully it recirculates and people continue to buy local.”

Also approved Tuesday was a contract with CTC to expand broadband access in a number of locations throughout the county, also supported by $1.48 million in coronavirus relief funds. Expansion of the broadband network is part of an effort to increase access for telework, distance learning and telemedicine. The remaining money will be applied toward the costs incurred by county government itself.

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