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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Fort Thomas Redoubles Efforts in Support of Local Small Business

Fort Thomas City Council held its first special meeting live via the Zoom application. The meeting is recorded and available on the city's Facebook page.

by Robin Gee, city council beat editor

The Fort Thomas City Council held a special meeting on April 6 to discuss pressing city business that included consideration of ways the city can help support local small businesses in this time of crisis. Earlier in the week, city officials introduced a new no-interest loan program available to local small businesses.

The special meeting was held, in part, to explore further ways to lend support, including consideration of a redeployment of funds set aside for the GROW Grant, a program introduced last year to help businesses make physical improvements to their buildings.

After much discussion, a motion was passed to clear the way for appropriating funds from the GROW program for use to support area businesses, but many details are still to be worked out.

Moving ahead to explore use of the GROW grant funds

Council requested the special meeting after a recommendation by Councilman David Cameron at the March meeting, with other agenda items added, with the goal to make a decision on the GROW Grant as soon as possible and to discuss options for additional support for local businesses.

A lengthy discussion ensued about the particulars of grant. All were in agreement to redirecting the funds set aside for the business improvement grant, but differed on the particulars and criteria involved in determining how the money would be allocated.

Council member Jeff Bezold summed up the general feeling. "To me, the grant program, whatever we need to do to get this program out for the individuals who meet the parameters we set forth, we need to do and we need to do it in a timely manner...There is no point in saving the money for a new awning if there isn’t going to be a business there to support that awning."

Some central issues were raised about the logistics—availability of funds, criteria for the grant, how to balance that with what is also available nationally and statewide, and how best to make the money available as quickly as possible.

Working through the issues

Criteria for the grant became the first sticking point. When providing money through a grant, state requirements exist to ensure that public funds are going to a public use and not to a private use. To meet this requirement, criteria needs to be developed to allow for verification that the grant has a public benefit.

Council member Roger Peterman was concerned about how the grant would be used. "I’m not of the mind to use public money to do things when maybe the private sector ought to step up too... I don’t want to jump in not knowing what need is and do something a bank might be willing to do."

Others on council, noted that keeping Fort Thomas businesses viable was indeed a public benefit.

"I can speak from my 30 years as a small retail operator. There are times when things get really thin and you think, can I keep going? And that’s just in regular times, and now I can’t imagine having the valve just shut off. And so if we could do this little thing seems like a logical way to move forward to retain some of the businesses we might lose otherwise," said Ken Bowman.

Peterman agreed that keeping area businesses open was a public good but still had concerns on how to best to ensure businesses would remain viable. It is a fiscal gamble, he said.

Councilman Mark Collier said there is some risk, but a risk that is worth it for local businesses. "We are in unprecedented times...Council made a pretty big bet on One Highland to make that a go. We need to send a signal to all businesses, current and potentially new business,  that says Fort Thomas is going to do whatever it takes for them to be successful. If nothing else, maintaining the viability of those businesses and new businesses is critical to the overall health of this community."

Bowman added, "It could easily be argued that it is for public good to retain the amenities that we have and the tax revenue that that generates for the city, too. I don’t think it’s a hard argument to make that it’s public funds for public good, and I can’t imagine anybody challenging that."

Hurdles to tackle

Applications were being taken during the first quarter of the year for GROW Grant funds coming from the next fiscal year budget (2020-2021). This means the money would have been dispersed after July 1, 2020, for eligible businesses. Council members were concerned that waiting for July to disperse funds was not an option.

To offer funds any sooner would require an amendment to the current budget to take the money from the general fund reserves and have it paid back from the next budget in July.

Discussion continued on the criteria and how the money could be used. Most were in favor of earmarking the funds for fixed costs such as rent, mortgage payments or utilities. Still, details still need to be hammered out, and all agreed those details need to be settled as quickly as possible.

The first order of business, however, was to introduce a motion to suspend the current GROW program and to reallocate those funds as support for businesses in this crisis. Peterman made the motion, seconded by Adam Blau. To make the money available quickly, the support program would be initially funded through appropriation of money from the general fund in the current budget and refunded after July 1 from the next fiscal budget.

The motion passed unanimously. The council and staff will continue to meet to address the how and why of making the funds available. Details will be shared as soon as possible on the city’s website.

An appreciation for the city's efforts

The Fort Thomas Business Association has been helping promote the city's loan program and had been urging further consideration of the GROW Grant funds. After learning of the motion to appropriate the funds to further assist area businesses, FTBA President Drew Schwegman thanked council for its swift and deliberate action.

"We appreciate the council putting together the meeting so quickly to discuss using the GROW fund as soon as possible. We remain hopeful the details will be worked out quickly and funds can get into the hands of the businesses that need them," he said.

Details of the loan program

The new zero-interest small business loan program is being offered to local businesses by the city as well. Mayor Eric Haas signed an executive order creating the loan program on March 30.

Designed to help support small businesses in Fort Thomas that are struggling due to Corona virus closure restrictions and related drop-offs in business, the Fort Thomas Small Business Loan Program offers short-term, no-interest loans of up to $2,500 to qualified Fort Thomas businesses.

"This program is the fastest way to reach our businesses with an offer of financial assistance. I am anticipating working with council to consider other methods of assisting our businesses and residents as this unfortunate crisis unfolds," said the mayor.

A link to a Small Business Loan Application is available on the home page of the Fort Thomas City website. Criteria for the loans are as follows:

  • The business must be located in a Fort Thomas commercial, mixed use building designated in the Central Business District, Professional Office or General Commercial Zone or be a legal non-conforming business located outside of these zones.
  • The business must have a current occupational license and been in business as of 3-16-20.
  • The business must submit an application, 2019 occupational license, W9 form and promissory note by 4-30-20. Repayment due one year from issuance.

Sharing more ways to support small business

In the meantime, the Fort Thomas Business Association has been sharing news of the city loan program, as well as information about state and federal programs and resources designed to bolster businesses during this time of crisis.

The organization also listed ways the community could help support their local businesses including:

  • Purchasing gift cards to be used later at your convenience when businesses are back on their feet.
  • Ordering food to go from local restaurants and taking advantage of curbside services if offered.
  • Going online and purchasing items from local businesses through websites.
  • Taking a virtual fitness class online. And, if you’ve pre-ordered a class pass somewhere, not asking for a refund.

Eager to do something more visible to show support for area businesses and the community, earlier this month FTBA members asked residents what their go-to order would be from local eateries. Members then surprised four families by paying for and delivering those orders.

"We wanted to lead by example. We wanted to show the human side of this crisis; we were thinking of our community and how we could give back...We’re all in this together, and that has never been more true than now," said Schwegman.

A note about "special meetings"

During this period of social isolation, the council will be unable to meet at the city building in person. According to state laws, any meeting held anywhere other than the city building is considered a "special meeting." A special meeting can be held to cover pressing business as long as it has quorum and must stick to items outlined in the agenda for the meeting.

Special meetings to handle city business will be announced on the city’s website. Special meetings are available live during the meeting on the city of Fort Thomas facebook page, and are recorded and available there after the meetings are held.

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