The Mobile County Commission has officially launched a new grant program to help small businesses that suffered economic damage from state shutdowns issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Championed by Commissioner Connie Hudson, the Small Business Relief Fund (SBRF) — a partnership with the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce — is the first of its kind to be launched by a county government in the state of Alabama. Like other programs launched by some cities, including Mobile, it aims to help stabilize the economy by supporting struggling small businesses impacted by COVID-19.
“This truly needed funding for these small businesses, and the summer months are expected to be a truly critical time for many of them,” Hudson said. “We believe providing a lifeline to businesses struggling to survive provides a direct public benefit by allowing them to maintain employment opportunities. It will also help the county’s tax base by securing revenues and protecting our economy as we move forward.”
Commissioners voted 2-1 Monday for a final approval for the program, which will allow qualifying businesses to receive up to $25,000 in grant funding depending on their level of need.
While other federal relief efforts like the Payroll Protection Program have also extended financial assistance to some small businesses, Hudson said those programs require owners to spend the lion’s share of the money they receive on personnel costs. The SBRF would encourage the same, but would also allow businesses to use the funds for things like mortgages, rent payments and other expenditures.
According to guidelines released by the commission, businesses would submit applications to the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce that would then be reviewed by a five-member committee of volunteers before being submitted to the commissioner for their final approval. Hudson announced Monday the committee currently consists of banker Tyrone Fenderson Jr., small business liaison Melvin Washington, attorney Preston Bolt Jr., accountant Gina McKellar and County Finance Director Dana Foster-Allen.
Once the application process is completed, the funding would be distributed to the business directly through the Chamber of Commerce. The county plans to invest an initial $1 million, though Hudson said the chamber has expressed interest in working with local banks to build up the fund and said additional public contributions could be possible as the county receives federal COVID-19 relief funds in the future.
More information about the program, the qualifications required to apply and application forms can be found here.
After the vote, Commission President Jerry Carl commended Hudson for her work getting the program together after the county was initially told by Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall it could not legally use public funds to support small businesses negatively impacted by the ongoing pandemic.
However, Hudson said county attorneys worked with the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts to develop appropriate guidelines. While public funds are generally unavailable to private entities, an exception in the law allows for those kinds of expenditures if they serve a broader public purpose. The same argument is frequently used to justify economic development incentives.
“We’ve done everything we can do to look at this and see what the options are, and the only thing I regret is that it’s not more money,” Carl said. “The quicker we can get our businesses back up on their feet and serve their customer base and the quicker our tax base rebounds, the quicker we can get over these very questionable times.”
While Carl and representatives for the chamber of commerce both praised the launch of the new grant program, Commissioner Merceria Ludgood did not attend the press conference Monday. Like she has with previous votes exploring the program, she voted against formally launching it earlier today.
In previous statements, Ludgood has said she has no issues with the intent of the program and recognized the needs that small businesses have right now. However, given the contradictory guidance from Marshall’s office on whether such a program is even legal, Ludgod has remained apprehensive.
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