In an afternoon meeting on March 26, the Lacey City Council passed a resolution in direct response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Most importantly, it allocates $1 million for immediate and longer-term efforts to support the local economy by enabling the Lacey business community to survive the crisis. Of this, $500,000 has been made available immediately.
“Small business is the foundation for providing employment and services in our community,” says Rick Walk, Lacey’s director of community and economic development. When social distancing recommendations were first made, leaders in Lacey immediately observed a decrease in traffic at small businesses. When the formal restrictions began to come down from the governor, patronage at small business continued to lighten with alarming but unsurprising speed. Scott Spence, city manager, and members of the City Council acted quickly in an effort to fill the revenue gap they knew the businesses would soon face.
Three years ago, the City of Lacey established a strategic investment fund intended to spur economic development through initiatives like the Lacey Makerspace and the Midtown rebranding project. The grant money will be extracted from this fund. Initially, $500,000 will be available. The second half of the funds will be temporarily reserved so that it can be used during a second phase where the needs of the community may look different.
The Thurston Economic Development Council’s (EDC) Center for Business & Innovation (CB&I) will administer the grant program. Any small business facing a loss of income due to the COIVD-19 outbreak that meets the criteria outlined by the City Council will be eligible to receive grant funding. “These are not loans; these are grants, which means they’re not payable back to the City. This is immediate aid from the City of Lacey,” explains Kaylee Purcell, director at the CB&I. In the initial round of applications, the City and the EDC anticipate roughly 50 businesses receiving up to $10,000 each.
Businesses with under 25 full-time employees are encouraged to apply for the grant. Priority will be given to businesses with fewer than 10 employees. The business must be physically located in Lacey and have been in operation with a City of Lacey business license for one year prior to their application date. They must be able to demonstrate that the business was profitable prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and that they have experienced a loss of income since then. Businesses may use the funding to pay rent or loans, essential employees, and normal operating costs.
The grant fits into a broader short-term strategy the City of Lacey is enacting in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The strategy has five points, the first of which is the grant. The City is also deferring B&O tax payments until July 31 and relaxing the rules around temporary signage so that businesses that remain open in some capacity can get the message out to neighborhoods. In the interest of providing direct relief for both the residents and businesses of Lacey, the City Council has suspended late fees, interest, and other penalties on utility payments.
The fifth short-term action was a $50,000 donation to United Way of Thurston County, which has established a COVID-19 Community Response Fund to support families and individuals who are disproportionately impacted by the outbreak and its economic impacts.
The City of Lacey is also participating in a long-term strategy to address the economic impacts of the crisis. A wide and growing number of local partners, including the City of Lacey, have formed the Regional Economic Recovery Task Force. The Task Force convened for the first time on Tuesday, March 24, and discussed ways to position Thurston County for a “quick and effective recovery.”
Rick Walk makes it clear that teamwork is going to be essential to overcoming this challenging time. He points to the work of the Lacey South Sound Chamber in communicating with Lacey’s vital small businesses. The Chamber held their monthly Forum meeting on April 1, using Zoom. Blaine Land, Lacey South Sound Chamber executive director, addressed about 45 attendees when she opened the meeting with comments of compassion: “I know we’re all a little overwhelmed because everyday something changes. We’re hoping we can provide you with sound information and guidance on who to talk to with questions.”
Purcell did most of the presentation and encouraged everyone to call a new hotline that’s been set up at the CB&I as of March 30. Calls will be answered Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. She encouraged everyone to spread the word about it.
The speed at which this grant can be administered is the most important and impressive aspect of this effort. “We need to focus on the people who are becoming unemployed,” says Walk. “We need to make sure they can pay rent and access goods and services. But we also need to focus on small businesses because if they disappear, there won’t be jobs for those workers to go back to.”