State's $40M Relief Program Could Help Local Businesses

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Sep 24, 2020
A new avenue of state funding could boost some small businesses across the Cape Fear region suffering because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Small businesses are the foundation of the local economy providing about 45% of the regional workforce, said Heather McWhorter, regional director of the Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC) office at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

"Many small businesses have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic," McWhorter said.

The newest program for funding relief for small businesses was announced by Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday.

Called the Mortgage, Utility and Rent Relief (MURR) program, it "has limitations that only make some small businesses eligible; those eligible small businesses were very affected by closures," McWhorter said.

The program provides $40 million in relief to certain businesses to help offset those fixed costs, according to a news release from the governor's office. It's administered by the N.C. Department of Commerce and can provide up to $20,000 in funds for a single business location, stated the release.

"Business applicants from certain industry sectors that have not been able to operate during the COVID period may apply for up to two of their business locations," officials said in the release. "Applicants can apply for up to four months of mortgage interest or rent expenses, and utility expenses."

The businesses that can apply for the relief are amusement parks; banquet halls (with catering staff); bars, taverns, night clubs and cocktail lounges; bingo parlors; bowling alleys/centers; dance halls; indoor fitness and recreation centers; motion picture/movie theaters (except drive-ins); and museums.

Among other eligibility requirements, "no relief will be paid for expenses that have been paid with other federal CARES Act funds (such as PPP)," according to the MURR website.

One local businessman said he is investigating his bowling alley's eligibility.

"I plan on taking advantage of it, if I can," Cardinal Lanes Shipyard owner Ron Schnell said Wednesday. "I've got to figure out all the details, basically is what I have to do. Because if you have used some PPP money to pay part of your rent, things like that, then you can't qualify for this money ... I think I will be eligible for some of it, but I don't know yet."

The bowling business has been slowly picking up each week, Schnell said, with more people taking advantage of open bowling and bowling leagues.

Cooper announced in early September that bowling alleys, skating rinks, fitness centers, gyms and others, could reopen at 30% capacity.

Due to the limitations, however, business is not what it was last year, Schnell said.

Applications for the MURR program will be accepted soon and businesses looking to participate in the program should watch the MURR program website to apply, according to the website, which provides more details about eligibility and a contact for questions. 

"Applicants should be able to apply for funds through the program beginning next week," according to a newsletter Wednesday from the governor's office. "The Department of Commerce will provide free educational webinars for businesses that think they may be eligible for the funds."

"I applaud the availability of additional grant funding to help small businesses stay afloat during this critical time," McWhorter said, adding that the Wilmington office of the SBTDC can help any Southeastern North Carolina small business with free and confidential assistance to apply for the MURR program or other grant and loan programs.

Jerry Coleman, director of Cape Fear Community College's Small Business Center, said he was also pleased to hear about the announcement of the MURR program and the additional funding it could provide to specific industry sectors.

"This will be very helpful," Coleman said in an email. "Although, more support is needed as these sector businesses have been closed now for more than 6 months."

Coleman said there are many more small businesses in the community that have "exhausted the initial Cares Act Stimulus funding, [and] have pivoted their business models as a result of the ongoing pandemic, but are still struggling to remain viable."

More federal, state and local funding resources are needed, he said.

One hard-hit industry, in particular, is accommodations and food service, Coleman said. 

The industry is still facing hardship because facilities are operating with restricted occupancy, he said, adding that many restaurant owners that he has spoken with are still reluctant to reopen dining rooms and are still strictly offering curbside pick-up and delivery to protect staff and the public.

"Generally, across the nation, the accommodation and food services revenues are down a minimum of 36% or more given the location [according to IBISWorld, a market research firm]," Coleman said in the email. "There are many others that I speak with daily -- i.e. small retailers /boutiques, daycare facilities, youth activity organizations, nonprofit organizations, personal fitness organizations, yoga/massage therapy/ wellness salons, and many more -- all continue to struggle."
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