AMHERST — Amherst County officials are targeting ways to use $2.75 million in federal money from the CARES Act in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, including $1 million for grants for small businesses and organizations and another $1 million for expanding broadband access.
The money helps the county deal with COVID-19-related expenses incurred through Dec. 30, putting just more than a six-month window on pushing out the disbursement. The Amherst County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to appropriate the money into the fiscal year 2021 budget, which still awaits final approval, that takes effect July 1.
County Administrator Dean Rodgers said the broadband expansion is vital for distance learning in the Amherst County Public Schools system and for a large amount of residents working from home. The need for reliable, high-speed internet and lack of it in rural parts of the county was voiced during a recent virtual town hall Amherst school officials held on planning to reopen schools amid the pandemic.
The remainder of the CARES money would go to a variety of projects dealing with health, safety and supplies, according to Rodgers.
“We’re setting up our own program on how to distribute this ... we have to move very quickly,” Rodgers said to supervisors of the Dec. 30 deadline. “We’re trying to set it up so it’s fair and easy to understand and administer.”
The county’s finance director, Stacey Wilkes, has processes in place to make sure the federal relief money is properly tracked in the county’s budget. The county considers small businesses for its grant distribution program as those with 50 employees or less, Rodgers said.
Rodgers said in a recent virtual chat with the Amherst County Chamber of Commerce the goal is to begin accepting grant applications from businesses and nonprofits in July.
About $193,000 of the federal money is set to go to the Town of Amherst, which plans to use the bulk of the money for a grant program for small businesses struggling with COVID-19, Town Manager Sara Carter has said. The town also plans to implement hazard pay for police officers and reimburse direct expenses such as cleaning, personal protective equipment and technology for staff to work from home, Carter said.
County and town officials are working on plans they can bring back to the board and Amherst Town Council on respective small businesses grant programs for final authorization.
Meanwhile, the county also is seeking additional money, up to $500,000, to help small businesses adjust to the effects of the pandemic through a community development block grant (CDBG) through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.
Victoria Hanson, executive director of the Amherst County Economic Development Authority, said the county has an urgent need for small business recovery and assistance. Rent fees were a major challenge for businesses that couldn’t open their doors during the crisis and the EDA’s recent $25,000 grant program for businesses helped in that area, she said.
“We know that is a great need for businesses that were closed for months and didn’t have any revenue coming in,” Hanson said of rent expenses.
The authority’s $25,000 grant program, which Hanson said helped about two dozen businesses, capped money for businesses at $1,000. The CDBG money, if approved, would allow businesses to receive more.
“What we found is as highly appreciative as that was, and we have really gotten some wonderful responses from the businesses that have received the [EDA] grant, is it scratched the surface,” Hanson said. “It did not get down deep enough for a lot of these businesses.”
“Sometimes you get wounded in the closing, but that wound can continue to bleed economically through the rest of this recovery,” Hanson said to supervisors in describing uphill battles some businesses are facing in Phase Two of the state’s reopening. “We know that with 50% capacity our restaurants aren’t doing as much businesses as usual, so we need to help and assist any way we can.”
Businesses assisted through the CDBG grant, if approved for the county, must be locally or regionally owned, employ 20 or fewer workers and have not already received CARES Act assistance. Hanson said much of the EDA staff’s workload will be devoted to relief assistance associated with grant money.
“We can’t think of a better usage of time right now than helping businesses that are already doing great business in Amherst County, to keep them strong ...” Hanson said.