1st Wave of ‘Microgrants’ for F.C. Businesses Now Imminent

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY chair Bob Young is looking to get the first $100,000 in microgrants out to City of Falls Church businesses immediately. (Courtesy Photo)

By a set of unanimous votes, Falls Church’s Economic Development Authority Tuesday night determined to provide up to $250,000 for emergency microgrants to the City’s small businesses to weather the current severe downturn in the economy due to responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The plan was first unveiled to the F.C. City Council last week, but Tuesday night’s action extended the total funds available from $100,000 to $250,000 in grants of $2,000 to local businesses. The focus of the Economic Development Authority’s (EDA) program is to get the money into the hands of the struggling small businesses as fast as possible.

Bob Young, local developer and chair of the EDA, commandeered Tuesday’s meeting toward a series of resolute decisions to allow for the program to be implemented almost immediately.

News of the program, and applications for those wanting to take advantage of it now available on the City’s website began being unveiled the very next day, including with an ad in the News-Press that appears in this week’s print edition. It followed another unanimous vote Tuesday night to authorize a series of public information ads over the next seven weeks in the News-Press.

Grant applicants will be asked to provide minimal information. They will be asked to swear to affidavits asserting they qualify for the grants, including the fact that their annual gross receipts range between $50,000 and $500,000 a year, that they’ve suffered at least a 50 percent drop in revenues since the crisis began, that they qualify as the kind of business being targeted for the help and that they are not non-profits or otherwise beneficiaries of government help. They may be asked to affirm that the grants will be used to pay for the basic means of staying in business, including salaries, rents and basic business expenses.

(The EDA was divided over whether non-profits should qualify, centered on the City’s Creative Cauldron theater and youth educational program on behalf of which former F.C. Vice Mayor Marty Meserve submitted two strong letters of support to the EDA. The EDA’s Ed Salzberg advocated to include such non-profits, and the issue was left unresolved, with non-profits not included in the first $100,000 of grants, but open to possible reconsideration for subsequent grants.)

The bulk of businesses the EDA hopes to help with the grants are small personal care services that were identified as non-essential and ordered closed by Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order last month.

They include such services such as nail and hair salons, exercise and personal fitness centers and more — types of which there are many in the City.

Becky Witsman, the head of the City’s Economic Development Office, noted that the first phase of the grant program will benefit only 50 qualified businesses when there are up to 10 times as many in the City that potentially qualify. That’s why if the number of applicants soars beyond 50, the EDA has authorized as many as another 75 to receive grants up to $250,000.

EDA board member and former chait Mike Novotny noted that the money being made available for this effort is not taxpayer dollars, but the result of investments by the quasi-independent EDA itself, resulting from the land banking in the 1990s of land in the 300 block of West Broad that was sold to the developers of the Harris Teeter building in the last decade that put $1.9 million into the EDA’s coffers.

Some of that money has been used to develop Mr. Brown’s Park in the 100 block of W. Broad.

Novotny credited Young with coming up with the micro grant idea, and Young in turn has credited Witsman with a yeoman effort in setting it up.

Also, despite early doubts, the process for determining who will get a grant will be determined by a random choice process, preferred over a judgment approach because it will rapidly speed up the decision process and eliminate any pressures over subjective preferences and so forth.

It is not the final word, either. It was discussed that a program to raise money from the community to fund further similar grants could be undertaken depending on how severe the economic crisis is and how long it endures.

In a virtual meeting of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce membership Tuesday at noon, there were more stories about difficulties facing small businesses and of more efforts to aid those in need in the midst of the crisis.

Over 50 people were on the internet meeting, including Jeff Bulman of the Original Pancake House who spoke of the many fundraisers he continues to support by donation of a portion of his proceeds. Sally Cole, the executive director of the Falls Church Chamber, was heartened by the event and the many efforts to help small businesses and good causes around the City, she said.

One small business owner noted in the meeting that she had the bad luck of opening her new business on the same day, March 13, that Gov. Northam ordered the closure of many non-essential businesses, including her own.

She said she was hopeful that a $2,000 micro grant from the EDA program will help her weather her current ordered closing.