By Scott Robertson
Small businesses in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia that are worried about how to keep the doors open as the COVID-19 crisis continues have a new potential source of funding. Several regional organizations and businesses Friday launched the Local Business Recovery Fund. The fund will raise money over the next month and distribute those funds to businesses with 50 or fewer employees in a geographic area from Marion to Mosheim.
The news is especially good for small businesses who were shut out of CARES Act funding when the $350 billion set aside for business loans ran out. And while the planning for the Local Business Recovery Fund began before that federal program ran through its funding, says Beth Rhinehart, president and CEO of the Bristol Tennessee-Virginia Chamber of Commerce, “We do this because many small businesses have not been able to secure loans or didn’t qualify for the government’s payroll protection program.”
“Organizations across Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia are doing what they can in a united effort to help save jobs and local businesses in the region,” explains Andy Dietrich, owner of Champion Chevrolet Cadillac, who helped organize the fund. “For local businesses that may not qualify for government loans, we want to provide another option to help them get through the crisis and hopefully survive.”
“This is a great testament to the effort to bring a regional focus to our area,” says Ken Heath, executive director of the Town of Marion, VA’s community development organization.
Businesses from northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia hailed the creation of the fund. Cori Fullen, who, with her husband Josh, owns Blue Ridge Outfitters in Marion, Va., says, “Our biggest concern has been all this inventory, all this stock that’s dead, sitting right now, and I know many retailers are experiencing the same thing. We absolutely cannot move without people’s help and generosity.”
Reid and Kristin Burton own Braedens BBQ & Catering and The Wooden Hanger in Kingsport, Tenn. The Wooden Hanger held a grand opening for a new location two weeks before the Tennessee safer-at-home guidance was issued from Nashville. That store is now stocked with Easter dresses. Reid Burton also says the catering business has suffered from not only the loss of walk-in traffic, but from the catering loss of every wedding in the last few weeks. “Just think of the ripple effect that takes place,” Burton says. “down to the catering, the cake-maker, the venue, the DJ and the dresses.”
Grants are intended for local businesses involved in arts, entertainment or recreation; accommodation and food services; retail trade; or the manufacturing sectors.
Businesses can apply for the grants at RegionAHEAD.com. An allocation committee made up of regional economic development representatives, educators, healthcare professionals, a banker and a Certified Public Accountant will review the applications.
Funds will be dispersed as quickly as funding and applications can be received through the effort, says Rhinehart. “The amount that we will be able to give to small businesses relies on how much consumers and other businesses are willing to give.”
“We know that local businesses here have always supported key fundraising charities, such as the Niswonger Children’s Radiothon or Speedway Children’s Charities (SCC),” says Claudia Byrd, director of the Bristol Chapter of SCC. “Many of those great donors are now in a crisis at no fault of their own, and I hope consumers and other businesses who have not been impacted so deeply will donate enthusiastically for this important cause.”
Those wishing to donate by check, rather than via RegionAHEAD.com, can do so by submitting to the Local Business Recovery Fund, 603 East Market Street, Johnson City, Tennessee 37601.
In addition to the three Tri-Cities-based Chambers of Commerce and the two largest economic development organizations in the region, the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership and NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership; other Chambers and virtually every media outlet in the region are taking part.
“Greene County businesses are hurting,” explains Jeff Taylor, president and CEO of the Greene County Partnership in Tennessee. “Citizens and businesses who are less affected by the COVID crisis can do something important for these hurting businesses across the region now with their donations.”
Local businesses and sole proprietorships that are locally operated are eligible to apply for a grant in Carter, Greene, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington Counties in Tennessee and Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington and Wise Counties along with the independent cities of Bristol and Norton in Virginia.
“We hope that this crisis will end very soon so that we can begin the recovery,” says Bob Cantler, president and CEO of the Johnson City, Jonesborough, Washington County Chamber of Commerce. “Till then, and long after, your donations can help to preserve jobs tied to local businesses that we know and love.”
Miles Burdine, president and CEO of the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce adds. “The government loans can’t serve all of the needs of small businesses in our region. We want to help businesses across the region that might fall through the cracks of government loans. Our focus is on not just the Tri-Cities but the region to help businesses in smaller rural counties as well as our cities.”
The fund began accepting donations Friday morning at 10 a.m., and had “several thousand dollars,” in hand before the end of the live-streamed announcement, Dietrich says.
“The support of our local media outlets has been extraordinary and appreciated in support of this effort,” says Mitch Miller, Executive Director of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership. “Every media company that we have contacted has wanted to play a role in this important undertaking,” explains Clay Walker, CEO of NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership.
“At its heart, this effort is about protecting and preserving the jobs that feed the families of our region,” said Scott Robertson, managing editor of The Business Journal of Tri-Cities TN/VA. “The small businesspeople of this region took the risk of creating those jobs, and they’ve come into this crisis through no fault of their own. They are the backbone of our communities. They deserve our support.”