HELENA — Nearly $138 million has been sent to small businesses through the Montana Business Stabilization Grant program since the program launched in May.
For a lot of recipients, the program has been a much needed lifeline that has kept their business from going under.
“We have been extremely grateful for it,” said Brianne Harrington, owner of The Painted Pot. “Not only has it allowed us to keep our operations going, but also it has allowed us to put aside a little money for the winter because we’re not sure when this is going to end or when we will be back to normal.”
Harrington has run The Painted Pot in Helena for more than a decade, and weathered through the 2000s recession.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a significant burden on the paint-your-own ceramics store. Their business model depends on people coming in for an extended period of time and touching a lot of items.
“Almost every month since March we’ve been down between 40 to 50 percent in terms of total sales,” explained Harrington. “August was a little better, but generally we’re down a lot.”
During the pandemic, The Painted Pot has received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan from Small Business Administration and two grants from the Montana Business Stabilization Grant program totaling $20,000.
“We’ve used that money to pay rent, utilities and we’re up to date on all our bills thankfully. It’s also going to allow us to re-up our inventory this month because we had been operating at a very low level to keep costs down,” said Harrington.
Thanks to the grants the Painted Pot was also able to run their summer programs, although at a loss due to the reduced camp sizes.
"All of the kids just loved having an outlet creatively as well as being able to make new friends," said Harrington. "We were all so isolated this spring, it was a real joy to see."
The Montana Business Stabilization program has been in high demand, resulting in the state offering a second round of grants mid-August.
As of Sep. 3, just over 8,000 Montana small businesses have received funding from the program. More than 6,600 of them received a second payment or have their second payment in processing.
“We’re seeing businesses of all stripes in truly every single corner of the state of Montana,” said Emilie Ritter Saunders, communication’s director at the Department of Commerce. “We’ve sent a grant to businesses in all 56 counties at this point. We’re seeing outdoor outfitters, magazines, media companies, retail locations, salons, restaurants, coffee shops you name it.”
While Montana did see a return of tourism this summer, it wasn’t anywhere near the levels the state traditionally sees. A lot of local events that would pack stores with customers were also absent this year due to COVID.
“We did still see a small number of people coming through, but we lost some tourism. We also lost major events from our community that we participated in,” said Chelsia Rice, co-owner of Montana Book Company.
Montana Book Co. also received two rounds of grants from the Business Stabilization Grant program.
Rice says the grants helped build confidence in reopening, while also ensuring they’re not facing economic hardship that would take years to recover from.
“The losses we sustained during shutdown were about 50 percent. Climbing out of that was hard, and feeling safe to bring back employees was scary,” said Rice.
The grants don’t just help the businesses, they uphold the chain of commerce for the community. Landlords receive rent that goes to property taxes, and residents don’t lose business that make their communities a vibrant place to live.
“I really just feel so grateful to be in Helena and in Montana in general,” said Rice. “We are so fortunate to live where we live and we’re so fortunate to have systems that were put into place immediately to shore up our communities, it’s not happening in other places in the nation,” said Rice.
West Virginia didn’t offer small business grants similar to Montana’s until July, two months after the Montana Business Stabilization Grant program launched. There are also some states like South Dakota that don’t have a grant program, and are only offering loans to small businesses..
This fall and holiday season are still big unknowns for many small businesses. Owners are unsure how much money Montanans will be spending this year, and in turn how much product to purchase.
"It's really important to support small businesses right now. Bigger stores have investors backing them up, but us small retailers don't," said Harrington. "Even if we are planning ahead and have money in savings, we run on much thinner margins and we really rely on community support to stay alive. We're not selling online to people across the country, we're selling to our community members and we want to be here next year."
Harrington believes another round of business stabilization grants may be needed given there is no definitive end to COVID-19 in sight. However, she believes that money should only be made available as long as it's not needed by those on the front lines of the pandemic, like rural hospitals.
Funding from the Business Stabilization program is expected to be fully expended soon. Applicants that have come in after Sep. 2 are being put on a wait list as the Department of Commerce expects current funding allocation to be fully used by pending applicants that are currently under review.
“At the Department of Commerce we are very aware that small businesses fuel our local economies,” Saunders said. “So we’re doing everything we can to make sure small businesses and employees and families really have the ability to bounce back from this pandemic and that supports are in place to make sure they can keep their business doors open and they can keep people employed.”