A customer uses a handheld credit card reader (via Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash)

Fairfax County is slated to send additional funding to businesses that suffered the most during the COVID-19 pandemic, but a Black nonprofit says more can be done.

The Northern Virginia Black Chamber of Commerce has repeatedly been neglected in the development of major business grant programs connected to Fairfax County, the nonprofit’s executive director Sheila Dixon says.

“I would have thought we would have had the opportunity to be at the table,” she said.

The county says it’s committed to working with more than 55 chambers, including minority chambers, multicultural groups, and other community and business support groups in multiple languages with its most recent financial assistance initiative.

A working group of local minority business owners is also trying to make changes and build bridges. A webinar co-hosted by the Community Foundation of Northern Virginia on June 23 seeks to address the needs of minority-owned businesses and how they can be helped.

The group has reached some conclusions and recommendations about equitable recovery across the region and is sharing data, according to the event description. Georgetown University adjunct professor Melissa Bradley, who also co-founded a business mentoring service called Ureeka, is the keynote speaker.

The county has noted these kinds of inequities. A consultant report for the county completed in January detailed how low-income and minority households faced greater difficulties in the workforce, along with women, who have been held back by affordable child care challenges.

Those findings came from working with businesses and a roundtable of minority chambers. The Northern Virginia Black Chamber of Commerce was invited to give input and was also asked to participate in a survey about impacts and recovery, according to the county.

Fairfax County’s Relief Initiative to Support Employers (RISE) program, which gave grants to small businesses and nonprofits, dedicated at least 30% of funding to businesses owned by women, minorities, or veterans. Those businesses ended up with 72% of the approximately $53 million of RISE funding, according to the county.

“We are building on and expanding those efforts,” county spokesperson Wendy Lemieux said in an email, adding that the county is committed to extensive outreach with businesses, particularly ones owned by women and people of color affected by the pandemic.

Unlike the RISE program, the county’s new PIVOT grant program didn’t include any provisions explicitly dedicating funds to often marginalized groups when the Board of Supervisors passed it last week.

Meanwhile, the Black chamber of commerce has shared the PIVOT grant information, but it’s also continuing its own initiatives to help businesses recover from the economic effects of COVID-19.

The organization recently launched an outreach called BTRNow (Build Thriving Returns Now) that provided an online workshop for kid entrepreneurs this spring, held a “Caring through COVID” panel discussion on Monday (June 14), and is currently carrying out a listening tour, among other programming.

Dixon says a lot of the chamber’s members have pivoted amid the pandemic and have been thriving.

But she also noted that there can be disparities, and various Black businesses might be reluctant to apply for resources if they’re skeptical that the support will materialize, even if race is considered as a factor in applications.

“It will be interesting to see if people feel more comfortable,” Dixon said. “We are building up and scaling up our businesses and providing them with the education and the resources that are available within the community.”

Photo via Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

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A “We’re open” sign in a business window (via Clay Banks on Unsplash)

Arts organizations, museums, and hotels are some of the key targets for Fairfax County’s new initiative to get money to those in need, and informational sessions are providing help.

Approved by the county board last week, the PIVOT program will provide financial grants to small businesses as well as other recipients, and webinars about the effort will begin at 1 p.m. tomorrow (Tuesday) in English and at 2 p.m. Thursday (June 17) in Spanish.

Links to the webinars can be found on the Fairfax County Department of Economic Initiatives website.

“Fairfax County is committed to helping businesses recover from the effects of the pandemic,” Board of Supervisor Chairman Jeff McKay said in a news release. “Through the PIVOT grant we will help those businesses who saw the greatest financial impact regain their momentum so they will be able to thrive in the reopening marketplace.”

Federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act is supporting the program with $25 million to the county.

Applications can be submitted online through a grant portal that will be open from June 23 to July 9. The money is being administered through the nonprofit Latino Economic Development Center, said Rebecca Moudry, director of Fairfax County Department of Economic Initiatives.

The areas targeted will give relief to food services, lodging, retail, services, amusements, arts organizations, museums, and historical sites.

Potential monetary awards for individual businesses and nonprofits include the following:

  • $18,000 for restaurants with less than $3.5 million in annual receipts or gross revenue per establishment
  • $12,000 for retail, services, and amusements with less than $3.5 million in annual receipts or gross revenue per establishment
  • $10,000 for large arts organizations, museums, and historical sites with annual receipts or gross revenue greater than $100,000
  • $5,000 for smaller arts organizations
  • $1,500 for food trucks that don’t belong to a restaurant
  • $400 per room to hotels with a minimum of 10 rooms

The money will go to businesses that have no more than 500 employees, among other criteria. Nonprofits don’t have an eligibility restriction regarding the number of workers they have.

The new outreach comes after the county ended its Fairfax Relief Initiative to Support Employers (RISE) program last year, distributing around $53 million, one of several financial outreaches by the county.

The PIVOT grants will go to hotels first, then to other organizations if demand is too great. The county could also add to the funding in the future.

Photo via Clay Banks on Unsplash

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Morning Notes

Taking a walk on North Shore Drive (Photo via vantagehill/Flickr)

Fairfax County Commemorates COVID-19 Losses — The Northern Virginia Regional Commission held a COVID-19 Remembrance Ceremony at the Fairfax County Government Center last night to recognize the more than 2,350 lives that have been lost to the pandemic. The ceremony streamed live on Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay’s Facebook page.

Sunset Hills Road Sidewalk Closes for Reston Station Construction — “Beginning yesterday, June 8, the sidewalk on Sunset Hills Rd. near the intersection of Wiehle Ave. will be closed long-term due to the ongoing Comstock construction projectSee the map for closure area and alternative pedestrian route.” [Hunter Mill District News]

County Board Approves PIVOT Grant Program — The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday (June 8) to create a new grant program that will use $25 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to support businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The program will focus on the hotel, food service, retail, and arts and culture industries with applications scheduled to open from June 23 through July 9. [Fairfax County Government]

Democratic Primary Favors Moderates over Progressives — Three of the Virginia General Assembly’s most outspoken Democrats lost their seats on Tuesday (June 8), as voters largely opted for more moderate candidates backed by the party’s establishment. The upset incumbents included Herndon Del. Ibraheem Samirah as well as Prince William’s Del. Lee Carter and Del. Mark Levine of Alexandria. [Virginia Mercury]

Reston Chamber Offers Grants to Business — The Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce’s nonprofit subsidiary INCspire Education Foundation is launching a BizMaker Grant Program to “promote inclusive entrepreneurship and a diversity of economic opportunities for businesses committed to job creation and revenue generation within Fairfax County.” [Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce]

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Fairfax County is developing a new grant program intended to help small businesses and nonprofits recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, but in a change from previous relief efforts, this program will first award money to hotels before determining recipients in other industries by lottery.

If it’s approved by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors today (Tuesday) as scheduled, the proposed PIVOT Business Recovery Grant program will be supported by $25 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress in March.

“The estimated 48,200 jobs lost in Fairfax County through December 2020 were heavily concentrated in the food service, hospitality and retail sectors,” county staff said in the agenda for today’s meeting, which starts at noon.

Staff added that approximately 50% of job losses in the county in 2020 were lodging, food services, retail, arts, entertainment, and other services.

But why hotels should get first dibs on the new money over restaurants and other affected businesses remains unclear. A county spokesperson says it’s a draft and subject to change.

The background provided in the agenda item does note that Northern Virginia’s lodging industry has been struggling in comparison to the rest of the state:

According to the global hospitality data firm STR, Virginia lodging businesses experienced a 2020 monthly average 50.5 percent decrease compared to 2019 — totaling more than $2.2 billion in lost revenue. Northern Virginia is the only region in Virginia that continues to decline and as of March 2021 has the lowest revenue per room in the Commonwealth.

The plan says hotels with at least 10 rooms will be eligible for a grant. Businesses in the program could get the money if they have 500 employees or less and their principal place of business is in the county.

Hotels are not the only industry hit hard by the pandemic. An International Monetary Fund report shows that in the U.S., the pandemic at one point led to a crash in restaurant bookings as well as steep drops in flying and driving.

Small business owner Caleb Max, who acquired Pica Deli in Reston early in 2020, says it’s good that another part of the hospitality sector would be helped. While restaurants have gotten a boost from relief funds and promotional efforts like restaurant weeks, he said hotels seem to have been left out.

Max shared his thoughts even as his own business has became a victim of COVID-19, according to a handwritten sign on the restaurant’s door announcing the business’s closure.

Max received Paycheck Protection Program money to the tune of $17,241 for his eatery as well as other assistance, saying the money helped but still left a significant deficit with office workers no longer around as consistent customers.

“The aid was good, but for restaurants, we were hit so hard,” Max said.

The new business assistance plan comes after Fairfax County distributed around $52.6 million to small businesses and nonprofits last year through the Fairfax Relief Initiative to Support Employers (RISE) program. Recipients had to have less than 50 employees across all locations.

The RISE program, which helped over 4,800 recipients, dedicated at least 30% of the money to women-, minority- and veteran-owned businesses, which ended up with 72% of the funding, according to the county.

That aligns with the findings of a consultant report completed in January that said the county should target further assistance to help those most affected by the pandemic. It detailed how low-income and minority households faced greater difficulties in the workforce, along with women, who have been held back by affordable child care challenges.

Photo via Febrian Zakaria/Unsplash

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Fairfax Connector suspended fare collections last year as a temporary health measure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the public bus system is considering longer-term adjustments to its fare policies with support from a new state grant program.

The Fairfax County Department of Transportation is one of 12 transit agencies in Virginia that have expressed interest in the Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s new Transit Ridership Incentive Program (TRIP), which will fund projects that increase connectivity in highly populated areas or remove barriers for low-income individuals by reducing or eliminating fares.

While fare collection resumed on Jan. 4, county leaders see reducing or subsidizing trip costs as one way to encourage more people to ride the Connector, which is the largest local bus system in Northern Virginia, transporting approximately 30,000 passengers on 91 routes in ordinary times.

“Access to transit is crucial in promoting equity county-wide and for many a barrier is cost,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Jeff McKay said. “Our Department of Transportation is committed to looking into how we can provide aid to those experiencing economic hardship.”

Created by the General Assembly during its 2020 session, TRIP was conceived before the novel coronavirus arrived in the U.S., but Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine told the Commonwealth Transportation Board during a May 18 workshop that the pandemic illustrated how vital public transportation is for essential workers, DCist reported.

“Fares turned out to be an obstacle. So we are really trying to use this as an opportunity,” Valentine said, according to DCist.

DRPT has split TRIP into two programs: one focused on regional connectivity, which could include everything from integrated fare collection systems to the creation of bus-only lanes on significant routes, and one focused on reducing the impact of fares on low-income users, which could involve eliminating fares, creating zero-fare zones, or providing subsidized or free passes.

Virginia has allocated a total of $129 million to the TRIP initiative through fiscal year 2027, including $88.4 million for the connectivity program and $39.6 million for the fare program, according to a presentation that DRPT delivered to the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

Legislators limited the fare reduction program to 25% of the initiative’s annual funding, but the General Assembly gave the program an additional $10 million in the state’s fiscal year 2022 budget, raising its total to $12.5 million for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on July 1.

DRPT released a draft policy last week outlining how TRIP will be implemented, including how projects will be evaluated for grant funds. The resolution is open for public input through June 18, and the CTB is scheduled to vote on it on June 23.

The department has also made a draft of the program’s application guidelines available for public comment until July 7. Read More

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Local restaurants are getting help from DoorDash and a statewide association for the hospitality industry.

The Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association gave $3,500 awards to businesses after over 690 restaurants in Virginia applied for relief. Egg Karne, Pho2000, Spice Town, and Sully’s Pour House in Herndon as well as Sprout Café in Reston were among the nine recipients in Fairfax County.

According to a county news release, Qaiser Aziz of Spice Town said the restaurant lost nearly 30% of its revenue during the pandemic, noting a big chunk of its lunchtime business decreased due to physical distancing as well as business and office closures.

“These restaurateurs are building businesses and community, and they continue to give back in spite of the hardships they have faced over the past year,” the VRLTA said in a news release. “Many have adapted and pivoted to offer online ordering, takeout, delivery and outside dining, and they are looking forward to a better year in 2021.”

The association joined forces with the online food ordering platform DoorDash to give out money to small restaurants that had operations disrupted, saw reduced revenue, or experienced financial stress between March and December 2020.

The 2021 DoorDash Restaurant Operator Relief Grant program was part of DoorDash’s Main Street Strong Pledge and did not require businesses to be a DoorDash partner to be eligible, the VRLTA said.

To be eligible for the grants, businesses had to have no more than three locations with 50 or fewer employees and annual gross revenue of $3 million or less for the specific location that was applying.

VRLTA and DoorDash allocated a total of $450,000 in grants to 128 restaurants in Virginia.

Fairfax County noted eight of the local recipients also received money from the Fairfax Relief Initiative to Support Employers that the Board of Supervisors established last year to give financial assistance to local businesses and nonprofits.

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issuing new mask guidance for fully vaccinated people, Virginia has eased its mask mandate, and major retailers such as Starbucks and Walmart have also lifted restrictions in stores for vaccinated customers, but businesses can still impose restrictions.

Under Gov. Ralph Northam’s current public health order, restaurants and other food service venues are limited to 100 people indoors and 250 people outdoors, and different groups of patrons must be kept at least six feet apart. However, the state will end those and other capacity and distancing restrictions on May 28.

Photo via Griffin Wooldridge/Unsplash

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