GRAND RAPIDS — In partnering on a $25 million small business relief fund, Kent County and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce want to tap a number of community and entrepreneurial support organizations to get the word out to companies and provide volunteers to vet grant applicants.
However, Start Garden and Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses — two of the organizations that the Grand Rapids Chamber lists as potential partners in the Kent County Small Business Recovery Program — question the volunteer part. They’d like to see the $750,000 the county will pay the Chamber to administer the grant program get funneled down and compensate the groups who are called upon to assist in the effort, rather than provide free labor.
“This should be a robust community effort, and it’s pitched as it’s going to be a robust community effort, so it just seems, arguably, that the community should get paid for those services,” said Darel Ross, a director at Start Garden.
“There’s a pattern and history in Grand Rapids of larger organizations that do not have a history of equity or equitable causes in their work. When funding opportunities come, all of a sudden they form these alliances and partnerships where basically the smaller organizations and the minorities do the work for free,” Ross said. “There definitely could have been more intentionality and sensitivity around making sure that the partners with a history of the work and who actually care about equity work, making sure they are at the table in a way that is monetized.”
The Grand Rapids Chamber’s proposal to the county for managing the grant funds lists municipalities and chambers of commerce across Kent County as partners for outreach and providing representatives for selection committees, plus several community and entrepreneurial organizations. That includes organizations such as the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, West Michigan Hispanic Center, Grand Rapids Black Chamber, Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, the Small Business Development Center, Experience Grand Rapids, NAACP, Amplify GR, LINC Up, Local First, Michigan Women Forward, the Neighborhood Business Alliance, Start Garden and Grand Rapids Opportunity for Women.
Offering compensation would help the partner organizations “do long-lasting work” toward equity and inclusion, Ross said.
“This is a time where we could really build some effective organizations,” he said. “It’s a hell of an opportunity for the Chamber to put its money where its mouth is.”
Despite his concerns, Start Garden “will always make sure we are a conduit to opportunities to the community,” Ross said.
‘We have to do better’
Similar criticism came from Jamiel Robinson, the CEO of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses. Robinson said that if the Chamber is going to get paid by the county to run the Small Business Recovery Program, other organizations that support the effort should receive some compensation as well.
Robinson suggested that the Chamber contract with the other organizations for the professionals, time and expertise it needs to review and score grant applications, and to promote the fund.
“If you receive $750,000 to administer this, it seems like those dollars should go toward that,” said Robinson, who cites the $100- to $125-per-hour rate the Chamber will get to manage the fund.
“You’re looking for work to be done essentially pro bono, even though the work you’re doing isn’t pro bono,” he said. “If you’re putting a dollar amount on what your time is worth, are you then saying to those around the table their time isn’t valuable?”
The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected the African American community, and with aid from the CARES Act and state efforts, “you did not see a lot of African American businesses be able to access the relief,” Robinson said.
He said his perspective “is nothing personal against the Chamber.” Other organizations feel the same way, but are reluctant to speak out publicly, Robinson said.
Robinson likens the situation to if Congress had allocated to one bank all of the federal money for the Paycheck Protection Program and expected every other bank to market, support and process customer loan applications without compensation.
“Since we’re experiencing record-high unemployment, use some of those dollars to hire people to do the work, instead of trying to rely on populations who have constantly been marginalized, oppressed and excluded economically and asking them to continue to give of themselves and give of their time,” he said. “If we as a community, as a city and as a county, continue to do the things the way we have always done them, we’re going to continue to get the results that we always have.
“Businesses need relief, so I’m definitely excited that relief is coming from that standpoint, but we have to do better as institutions when we’re looking at equity and inclusion.”
Kent County created the Small Business Recovery Program using a portion of $114.6 million in federal money received April 24 through the CARES Act that Congress enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
County leaders say their goal through the outreach to numerous organizations is to ensure the grants are distributed equally to small businesses affected by the pandemic. The county had to move quickly to put together the grant fund because “we knew time was of the essence” for small business owners that need help, said Mandy Bolter, who chairs the Kent County Board of Commissioners.
“We just wanted to get that going as soon as possible,” Bolter said. “We’re going to try to hit every single corner of this county.”
Commissioners decided to partner with the Grand Rapids Chamber for the grant program because it “had a track record” in managing a grant fund, Bolter said. Earlier in the pandemic, the Chamber formed and ran a fund that provided about $1.4 million in assistance to 125 small businesses.
“What we were so fortunate as a county to have, the Chamber had already set up a very robust, very detailed, very data-driven plan and program, so we didn’t have to be at a disadvantage of trying to do that ourselves, or some of the other groups in the community that they work with,” Bolter said.
The Chamber also has the structure and staff needed to provide the technical assistance and administer the grant fund, according to county officials. Immediately bringing in other organizations to support the effort was “probably the number one concern” of a county board subcommittee that reviewed how to allocate CARES Act funding, Bolter said.
“In this process, we really need them to participate with us and help us,” she said. “We need a group effort and we need to come together. We’re excited about this because it’s an opportunity to bring us all together.”
‘GET IT DONE’
The application process for the Kent County Small Business Recovery Program opens June 22, starting with small businesses that previously have not received any local, state or federal assistance. The applications process opens further June 29 to all small businesses in Kent County affected by the pandemic.
In seeking to partner with local communities and organizations for volunteers to help with the selection process, the Chamber is “reaching out to organizations whose mission is to serve small businesses,” said Andy Johnston, vice president of government affairs. Volunteers would need to commit 16 to 20 hours to the process.
“What we’re asking of partners is just to share the information with constituents and if they’d like to be part of the review process, we’d love to have them,” Johnston said.
The Chamber is providing “the most significant amount of labor and administration of the program. We’re basing it off of the work we did for the rapid relief fund and we’re rededicating a significant portion of our staff administer the entire program,” he said.
Kent County Administrator Wayman Britt said the federal CARES Act money comes with several requirements and regulations. The county needed a “solid partner” to make sure it complies with the requirements to prevent any clawback of the money by the federal government, Britt said.
“We have partnered with an organization that can get it done the way the county wants to do it,” Britt said. “They can get it done quickly and they will be able to get it done in a way that represents the way the county operates, how we want to make sure we are fiscally responsible, and we’re not missing anything when it comes to following all protocols from the federal government.”
By working through the Grand Rapids Chamber and with partner organizations, “we can have an even better and more robust process of finding out where the needs are and making sure the minority community, the Latin American community, the African American community have an opportunity to take advantage of this opportunity,” Britt said.
“We are in fact making sure every sector of this community is getting the support that they need in a very deliberate, thoughtful way,” Britt said. “That’s ultimately how we’re going to be judged: Did we or did we not get the job done?