MERIDEN — Economic Development Director Joe Feest said his focus has shifted to helping small businesses stay afloat and reopen during the pandemic.
“Since we don’t know what we’re actually going to be doing for a while as far as touring people and saying, ‘this building is available’ … This is what I want this department to do,” Feest said. “I want it to focus on helping all the small businesses that are struggling and trying to survive. Let us help you get your word out about what you’re doing, and I think that is going to be key to help them survive … We always do this but now it becomes a priority.”
Feest joined the Record-Journal Tuesday to discuss how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted local businesses.
“This pandemic has touched almost every facet of economic development and businesses inside our city,” he said. “There really isn’t a sector that you can say hasn’t been touched by this.”
The full interview, which included reporter and reader questions, can be viewed on the Record-Journal’s Facebook page. Here are some highlights.Work to reopen
As the first wave of businesses work to reopen beginning May 20, Feest said many first need to find enough personal protective equipment, or PPE, for staff. A number of business owners have reached out to Feest for suggestions, but supplies are often scattered.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer for them of where to go for masks that’s a catch all,” Feest said, adding he’s personally delivered PPE to some businesses.
Different types of businesses will face different sets of mandates. Feest said he knows many businesses won’t be ready to reopen May 20.
“There are hurdles there. I do know some salons that are not going to be ready for the 20th, so they’ve decided to open up a little bit later,” he said.Local grant program
The city is planning to use $250,000 in Community Block Development Grant funds to give out small grants to businesses, likely around $5,000 a piece, according to Feest.
Because CDBG funds administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are meant to benefit people with low incomes, the city will be restricted to giving the funds to businesses in low-income areas, notably downtown. Feest said he is working with the city manager on ways to help businesses in other areas of the city, adding the city is still waiting for firmer guidelines from HUD.Help with loans, grants
Feest, whose department has played a role in helping small businesses obtain grants and loans, said in some cases local small business owners have been put at a disadvantage in applying for aid from programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program, which distributes funds based on number of employees.
“The government put this together as fast as possible,” he added, “and whenever you do things in a rush, there’s going to be loopholes and areas that aren’t going to be protected and covered.”
The application process for these loans often requires businesses to provide profit and loss statement and a 2019 tax return, which many small businesses can’t readily produce because they haven’t filed yet and don’t have accounting departments.
“I’ve talked to several accounting firms where people are calling in for help and saying, ‘We need to get this done, this done, and this done, so that I can get the Paycheck Protection Program,’ ” he said.
In response to a question on whether it was fair to lump small businesses into the same program with businesses of hundreds of employees, Feest said, “I really don’t know how we could have separated it down any further,” because having more classes could create logistical issues and make the funds harder to manage.Mall reopening
Feest reacted to Monday’s announcement that Westfield Meriden mall would reopen May 20, saying he was “happily surprised.”
“We need to get that mall back up and running, for the businesses inside and for the city as well, too,” he said, noting the mall is one of the city’s largest taxpayers.
Feest has been in communication with Westfield manager Chris Powers, whom he’s already worked with to allow certain businesses, including a pet store and dentist office, to remain open in the mall.
“They’re an energetic group that is going to make the mall safe for people to come in. They’re going to follow all the CDC guidelines. Knowing Chris, they’ll even go a little bit further,” he said.
Feest is willing to work with Westfield on different initiatives to draw people back as the pandemic subsides, including having high school bands perform at the mall or using the mall’s parking lot for events and attractions.
To encourage the public to get out and shop locally, Feest said the city is running a giveaway contest, “Eat Local Win Local,” through which residents can enter to win one of two $100 restaurant gift cards by spending at least $15 at two local restaurants. To be eligible, residents must send their receipts to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow the department’s Instagram page, @Meriden_Economic_Development. The promotion began April 27 and runs through May 20.
Down the road, Feest said he’d like to run similar giveaway campaigns encouraging local shopping.
“When our Little Leagues needed a sponsor on the back of the shirt, these are the people that came in and did it,” Feest said while talking about giving back to local businesses.
Clarification: A prior version of this story accurately quoted Feest as saying businesses with one employee don’t qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program. Those businesses are technically eligible. For more information visit the Small Business Administration website.