Governor Charlie Baker’s two new grant programs to help small businesses through the COVID-19 pandemic have been swamped by applications, essentially ensuring there won’t be enough money to go around for everyone who sought the help.
Working through the quasipublic Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp., the Baker administration unveiled two programs in October offering a combined $50.8 million in grants, aimed at helping small businesses endure what’s expected to be a tough winter.
One program, backed by $40 million, offers grants of up to $75,000 for businesses with as many as 50 employees; the other, with $10.8 million, provides grants of up to $25,000 for businesses with five or fewer workers. The latter program also requires that the owners who apply have below-average incomes.
Mass. Growth Capital stopped accepting applications last week. At that point, state officials said, more than 10,000 applications had been received for the two programs, which are being funded by federal dollars. About 37 percent were for the program to help businesses with five or fewer employees, although a few businesses applied to both programs.
Generally speaking, the industries most affected by the pandemic were most represented in the applications: restaurants, beauty and personal care, and educational and personal services.
It remains unclear how many applicants will successfully get a grant; that number will depend in large part on whether state officials decide to award requests in full but assist fewer businesses, or reduce the sizes of the grants to reach more businesses. But it’s highly probable that thousands of requests will be rejected. State officials hope to decide who wins grant funds in December.
Joe Kriesberg, chief executive of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, said if all grants were doled out at the maximum amount, they would get to roughly 1,000 businesses. He said he expects the number of recipients will likely be higher than that, but he doubts it would exceed 2,000.
“No matter how you slice and dice, the program has just been overwhelmed with applications,” said Kriesberg, who also sits on the Mass. Growth Capital board. “I knew we would be oversubscribed but I did not think it would get to 10,000. … It demonstrates the tremendous need out there in the small business community for more resources at every level — state, federal, and local.”
Mass. Growth Capital has made it clear that priority will be given to businesses owned by women, people of color, and veterans, as well as those in so-called Gateway Cities, those most negatively affected by the pandemic, and those that have not received prior federal aid.
“It’s important that the resources we do have are targeted for the businesses most in need,” Kriesberg said.
The two programs could get a partial refill soon, thanks to $17.5 million included in the Senate and House versions of the state budget for this fiscal year that’s expected to be finalized within the next week. Baker asked for twice that amount, and Kriesberg remains hopeful that lawmakers might oblige.
Next up on Beacon Hill: an economic development bill that could provide additional aid for ailing small businesses, with restaurants in particular primed to benefit from a new proposed grant program designed specifically for that industry.
More than 40 small-business support groups combined forces to promote the Mass. Growth Capital grants, particularly among business owners of color, including those who don’t speak English well, or at all. These groups assisted an estimated 880 small businesses.
Karen Kelleher, executive director of the Local Initiative Support Corp.’s Boston office, said the application window didn’t leave much time to get the word out. The programs opened up on Oct. 22, the day they were announced, and closed less than four weeks later. Kelleher, who helped shepherd the outreach efforts, said she heard from one organization in Lowell that found only 1 out of 50 small businesses were even aware of these grants.
“There are smaller businesses, they may not speak English, they may not be digitally savvy,” she said. “But they are Main Street businesses. They are the lifeblood of their communities. They needed technical assistance to apply.”
To some extent, the Mass. Growth Capital grants were seen as a stopgap measure as everyone waits for a divided Congress to finally advance another economic recovery bill.
“The oversubscription to this program just highlights the need here in Massachusetts and across the country for the federal government to get its act together and deal with the next phase of relief funding,” said Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
Anthem Group founder Chris Sinclair said he applied for a $75,000 grant to ensure he can keep his payroll of 24 full-time workers intact. The events side of his business has taken a huge hit this year; he has been getting most of his revenue through food and beverage sales at The Anchor, the outdoor venue that Anthem runs in the Charlestown Navy Yard.
Sinclair said he was prompted to apply in part because of the failure of Congress to act on a new rescue bill.
“I applaud the state for coming up with an intermediate solution,” Sinclair said. “It is by no means enough to fill all of our … financial needs, [but] it’s a definite intermediate step.”