Less than 5% of money spent from Providence COVID small-business grant program

LESS THAN 5% of the $7 million small-business grant program the city launched in October has been spent, with some businesses saying the requirements are too restrictive. / PBN FILE PHOTO/CHRIS BERGENHEIM

PROVIDENCE – Five weeks after the city launched a new grant program for small businesses impacted by the pandemic, more than 95% of the funding remains untouched, according to data provided by the city.

The $337,500 in grants doled out through the COVID-19 Small Business Grant program as of Nov. 19 represents 4.8% of the $7 million set aside for the program, which was funded through a portion of the American Rescue Plan Act. And the 135 businesses that have received the $2,500-apiece grants is just 5% of the 2,700 businesses the city said would be eligible to apply when announcing the funding last month.

Even when including the additional 100 applications received but not yet approved for funding, the total number of applicants is less than 9% of the number of eligible businesses citywide.

Whether this seemingly slow start is a problem depends who you ask.

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City leaders appeared unconcerned by the relatively small number of applications and dollars approved since the program opened on Oct. 15. In an emailed statement, Mayor Jorge O. Elorza said the applications appear “on track” with expectations, and touted the city’s continued outreach to the business community.

Providence City Council President John J. Igliozzi in an emailed response also said he was “pleased” by the number of checks already distributed.

But some local business leaders thought the seemingly small number of applications and approvals pointed to problems with the program parameters.

Chris Parisi, owner of the Providence-based Trailblaze Marketing and co-founder of the R.I. Small Business Coalition, named the tangible tax minimum as the biggest barrier for many small businesses. Under the city program guidelines, businesses must have between $5,000 and $1 million in tangible assets, excluding real estate, to apply. 

That was the roadblock for Bristol Maryott, owner of Jala Studio Yoga & Art. 

The South Main Street business owner was eager to apply for the grant, which she hoped would help her survive the continued economic fallout of the pandemic. Yoga class attendance remains below pre-pandemic levels and other relief she received through the Paycheck Protection Program and a Restore Rhode Island grant have at this point run dry, Maryott said.

But her tangible assets were few: A desk, an iPad, and an empty studio with a few yoga mats, meaning she did not meet the minimum $5,000 bar.

Maryott felt frustrated by what she saw as an unfair requirement that left her and others like her out.

To have that be the requirement rather than just something like business size seems to me unfortunate because there are so many quirky, creative, small businesses that really make Providence unique,” Maryott said.

Indeed, other state and federal grant and loan programs have set limits around income and business size, but not tangible assets. Parisi said he suggested the city remove or at least tweak that requirement.

But thus far, the rules of the city program have not been changed, according to Andrew Grande, a spokesman for Elorza.

Igliozzi expressed openness to changing program rules if problems were found, but did not comment when asked if the current requirements were overly prohibitive.

The program is set to remain until funds expire or July 1, 2022, according to the city website.

The small-business grant program was part of a larger, $42 million ARPA spending plan approved by the City Council earlier this year, though a majority of the city’s $160 million in stimulus funds has not been allocated. The initial spend proved controversial among the council, with six city council members voting against it because of a lack of detail and public input on how the federal dollars will be used.

A committee city officials and residents have been developing a set of recommendations for how to spend the rest of the city’s ARPA funds based on community feedback.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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