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Travis County directs $10M toward small business grant program

Thursday, April 30, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Despite the federal government authorizing $659 billion in small business aid, many small enterprises in Travis County are still in need of funds in order to survive the economic crisis caused by Covid-19. To help those business owners, the Travis County Commissioners Court unanimously authorized $10 million of the $61 million in federal funding received by the county to be set aside to fund a small business grant assistance program.

“We’re trying to get to the people that have fallen through the cracks of the bigger loan programs that are out there,” said Diana Ramirez, the director of the county’s Economic Development & Strategic Investments department, at the April 28 meeting of the Commissioners Court.

Ramirez said the program is actively being developed. “I’m hoping that in a couple of weeks, 10 days maybe, we can have it all lined up,” she said. Although the timeline for the program’s rollout is rapid, she emphasized that Travis County does not want to make the same mistakes as other programs and end up funding businesses that already have a significant advantage in resource access. She said the county’s grant program will target “small, diverse and vulnerable businesses.”

Eligible businesses will need to be located in Austin’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, unincorporated areas of Travis County or another town in Travis County without a dedicated funding program for small businesses. Ramirez noted that a small business is defined as an enterprise that has operated since March 1, 2019, with fewer than 25 employees and less than $1 million in annual revenue.

Grants will have a maximum value of $40,000 and businesses will need to spend the funds by the Dec. 30 deadline mandated by the federal government for the use of Covid-19 related aid.

Commissioners Jeff Travillion and Brigid Shea both noted that the distributions for many of these stimulus programs have been “inequitable” and encouraged county staff to actively reach out to minority communities and increase awareness of the program. Travillion said engaging the media outlets that reach the county’s target demographic should be a critical component of the outreach strategy.

The county will be issuing the grants through Business & Community Lenders of Texas. Ramirez said in addition to actually functioning as a conduit for the funds, the county hopes to work with the lender to create marketing and communication campaigns that use a variety of media outlets to reach the desired demographics. “They have experience with that and contact with those groups,” she said.

Members of the small business community waited on phone lines to inform the commissioners of the necessity of such a program and voice their support for its implementation. Small-business owner Luis Rodriguez said, “The moment this becomes available, the amount of need that comes your way will be overwhelming.”

Political consultant Paul Saldaña told the commission, “What your county staff here is proposing will definitely fill the gaps.”

Shea noted the $10 million grant program will be administered under the supervision of the Commissioners Court and will be monitored and tweaked as the distribution of funds goes along.

While the program’s specific underwriting parameters for funding are still being finalized, the county will not make distributions on a first-come, first-served basis. This approach, according to Ramirez, will allow for more discretion on the part of the county and more diversity in the support granted to the business community.

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