R.I. Commerce board approves $5K grants for small businesses

THE R.I. COMMERCE CORP. Board of Directors voted on Friday, Jan. 14, 2021, to start distributing $5,000 grants and provide technical assistance using $32 in federal funds provided to the state through the American Rescue Plan Act. / COURTESY COMMERCE CORP.
THE R.I. COMMERCE CORP. board of directors voted on Friday to start distributing $5,000 grants and provide technical assistance using $32 million in federal funds provided to the state through the American Rescue Plan Act. / COURTESY COMMERCE CORP.

PROVIDENCE – Gov. Daniel J. McKee said $5,000 grants administered through the RI Rebounds Initiative program will go a long way in helping struggling business, including minority-owned restaurants, to make ends meet amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The sooner you get the money out the better,” said McKee, speaking to members of the R.I. Commerce Corp. board of directors, who met in a Zoom video conference call on Friday. “It not only helps the business, but those around those businesses, to make sure the dollars are circulating around the community.”

The R.I. Commerce Corp. board voted unanimously on Friday afternoon, with one recusal, to start distributing funding through the RI Rebounds Small Business and Impacted Industry Program, while authorizing additional funding for the management of the project and the payment of vendors that will offer technical support to businesses that are applying for grants through the program. The funding mostly derives from the American Rescue Plan Act, after state legislators voted and McKee signed a bill to authorize the investment of $119 million in ARPA funds to help Rhode Islanders recover from the economic impact of the pandemic, with $32 million of that set aside to assist small businesses.

A breakdown provided by R.I. Commerce shows that $12.5 million will be distributed through the RI Rebounds Small Business Grant Program, another $8 million will be distributed through the RI Rebounds Impacted Industries Grant Program, $1.5 million is for technical assistance for long-term business-capacity building, $3 million is dedicated to the Placemaking Program for outdoor and public space capital improvements and event programming, and $7.5 million is being devoted to public health upgrades and outdoor programming as part of the Take It Outside Program.

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Vendors authorized by the board to provide technical assistance include the Center for Southeast Asians; Roads Consulting; Rhode Island Black Business Association; Rhode Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Rhode Island Society of Certified Public Accountants.

That board also authorized the expenditure $4.5 million for the administration of the programs with the help of marketing vendors and support vendors, using $3.55 million of federal funding, and up to $950,000 in R.I. Commerce Corp. funding. Vendors authorized to help administer the program include the Washington-based firm Witt O’Brien’s. While state lawmakers set aside $32 million just for small businesses, the programs are being funded by a total of $45 million in federal funds, according to the R.I. Commerce Corp. board.

One member of the board, Michael McNally, questioned how big an impact these $5,000 grants could have for struggling businesses, pointing to a lack of participation in a similar small-business grant program offered in Providence. The city has been offering $2,500 for struggling businesses but only 12% of eligible businesses submitted applications, according to data obtained recently by Providence Business News.

“There’s been very little interest,” McNally said.

But McKee, who chairs the board, and R.I. Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor disagreed.

“I don’t know what they’re doing in Providence,” said McKee, explaining that he heard from minority business groups, including the Rhode Island Black Business Association, that supported the grants and noted, “$1,500 a month for rent can go three months.”

Pryor said Commerce has been receiving phone calls, particularly from restaurants and hospitality businesses, inquiring about small-business grants. Pryor also said state lawmakers said this funding should be used for small-business grants, rather than a workforce-development fund. Pryor also said the recent rise of the omicron variant of COVID-19 is causing more small businesses to struggle with the impact of the pandemic, causing customers to stay at home more often, making the direct grants even more crucial.

“We all hope omicron, as predicted, to be on the downswing soon,” Pryor said. “But if we can help them make it through with consumer demand being reduced in the course of the omicron surge, it would be of great service to them.”

Marc Larocque is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Larocque@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @LaRockPBN.

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