Ohio struggles to find takers for $207 million in business aid

The Courtyard by Marriott, in the core of the city’s medical, educational and arts district, received a $30,000 grant. So did most of the other Buckeye State hotels that Concord manages.

“We’ve still got a heavy uphill climb,” Haller said of the industry. “So every dollar we can claim in grant money or efficiencies across the board can help us to rebuild these hotels.”

The state’s programs are broad. Eligible food and beverage applicants, for example, are not just bars and restaurants. They include caterers, fraternal organizations, coffee shops, snack bars and other businesses that earn more than half their revenues by selling food and drinks.

Entertainment-venue grants are available to dinner theaters, movie theaters, museums, zoos, amusement parks, golf courses, bowling alleys and arcades. The lodging program is open to hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfast operators.

But some entrepreneurs are finding that they fall outside the lines. To secure a grant, a new business must have between two and 25 employees. That shuts the door on many salons, barber shops, yoga studios and other service businesses that rely on independent contractors.

Trade-show organizers and professional associations that host meetings also don’t meet the requirements, even though they were sidelined for more than a year by state regulations.

“Because they don’t have four walls, they don’t qualify. But we bring business to these places with four walls,” said Melinda Huntley, executive director of the Ohio Travel Association.

Huntley said the state is working closely with business groups to promote the programs and consider potential modifications. Any significant changes to the grants would require action by the General Assembly, which allocated the money in May through Senate Bills 108 and 109.

“If anything, this pandemic has shown us that it is very difficult to create all-encompassing parameters,” said Huntley, who commended the development department. “I think they’ve done a great job. They’ve also been willing to make adjustments.”

To land a lodging grant, a hotel must have experienced an occupancy dip of at least 10% last year. The actual amount of the grant — $10,000, $20,000 or $30,000 — is tied to lost revenue.

The occupancy rule means that some hotels that served as temporary housing for health care workers or overflow homeless shelters last year cannot secure grants, even if they suffered a financial hit, said Joe Savarise, president and CEO of the Ohio Hotel & Lodging Association.

Quirky accommodations like Sojourner’s Lodge & Log Cabin Suites in Amish country also miss the mark. Owner Gwen Miller filled out a lodging-grant application in August but could not submit it without a state hotel or motel license.

She, like other owners and operators of pint-sized properties, does not have a license.

Miller’s business, in Holmes County, is faring much better than hotels that rely on major events or corporate travel. But the lodge and log cabins were offline in April 2020, and Miller did experience a falloff in occupancy and income as guests canceled their reservations.

“I definitely appreciate all that Ohio has done and the government has done to help small businesses get back on their feet. … It would be nice to have the opportunity to apply for the grants that the bigger ones got,” she said.

Mihalik said her department is open to tweaking the programs, but she’s focused first on highlighting the grants through chambers of commerce, trade groups and other economic-development organizations. She hopes to award the remaining money by the end of the year.

“There’s no expiration date on it yet, but there will have to be at some point,” said Steve Stivers, president and CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.

The state set aside $200 million for food and beverage businesses, $50 million in lodging grants, $40 million for entertainment venues and $20 million for new businesses. It was difficult to calculate the need up-front, Stivers said, and the response so far is nothing to scoff at.

“That’s real money,” he said. “And that’s a lot of help to a lot of businesses who have been struggling.”

The chamber is working to spread the word beyond its 8,000 members through posts on social media, email blasts, webinars and interviews with television stations and other outlets.

It can be particularly difficult to reach fledgling businesses. But officials know they exist. Ohio saw a record high of 171,073 new business filings last year — though not all of those filings represent a company with brick-and-mortar operations, employees or profits.

The surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Delta variant is making outreach harder. The Ohio Restaurant Association has convened large meetings in Cleveland and other cities and is calling members about the grant programs, said John Barker, the group’s president and CEO.

He stressed the importance of direct conversations with restaurateurs, including those who are not tech-savvy or who speak English as a second language.

“I had a boss once who said mom-and-pop operators don’t like to read emails,” he said.

When the online application portal opened on June 29, it took Jill Bacon Madden only 10 minutes to apply for a food and beverage grant.

Her Akron concert club, Jilly’s Music Room, was shuttered from mid-March 2020 until July of this year. The $30,000 from the state is a huge help, Madden said, equivalent to two-and-a-half months of payroll or a year’s worth of insurance premiums and licensing fees.

She believes a lack of awareness is hampering the state’s efforts to pump out aid.

“A lot of the small, indie, mom-and-pops, they’re not members of the chambers. It’s a luxury expense for a lot of people to be a member of the chamber of commerce,” Madden said.

“They’ve got to figure out how to get to people where they are. And if that’s sending … somebody else door-to-door, that would be the way to do it. Neighborhood by neighborhood. Business by business.”


Simonne Stigall

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