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CLEARWATER — City leaders approved a $4 million grant program May 7 that they say will aid businesses adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic immediately and in the uncertain future that lies ahead.

The Back to Business Program will offer as much as $6,000 to support eligible small businesses with brick-and-mortar storefronts, and as much as $3,000 for home-based businesses.

The program, which will accept applications for a week starting Monday, is broken into two parts that focus on short-term and long-term recovery by providing grants and also paying for professional services that will help keep businesses solvent moving forward.

To provide immediate relief, brick-and-mortar businesses with as many as 25 full-time equivalent employees will be able to apply for $3,000 grants to pay for expenses such as rent, mortgage, utilities, vendor payments, and employee wages.

If they choose to do so, they can also apply to participate in an agreement where the city would pay as much as $1,000 for business counsel, accounting, marketing, web design or related services.

Such an agreement would be orchestrated and managed by Amplify Clearwater, Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corp., or Prospera Florida, which would receive a 10% administrative fee.

If those obligations are met, the business would receive another $2,000.

“We’ve said on many occasions, we want to have fertile ground here and so that’s really what this component is intended to do, is to help these businesses with resiliency and, perhaps in many instances prepare, for a new normal,” said Denise Sanderson, director of the city’s Economic Development and Housing Department, who added that businesses shouldn’t expect immediate payment for these funds.

Eligible home-based businesses, which must generate at least $12,000 in annual revenue, can only apply for the professional services portion of the program.

Eligible brick-and-mortar businesses must be within the city limits, have a business tax receipt, and will include restaurants, bars, nightclubs, short-term lodging establishments, and those deemed nonessential under the governor’s safer-at-home order. Those who received funds through the county’s CARES Act program can also apply.

Those not eligible include publicly traded companies, nonprofits, firms with unpaid code enforcement liens against them, or those with an owner who has a felony or financial mismanagement conviction within the past two years.

Application process

In order to give everyone a chance, Sanderson said the program would not be first-come, first served.

“We’re seeing folks in other communities being overwhelmed with applications, and so we don’t wish to put people in a position where they feel that they must submit on Monday morning May 11,” Sanderson said.

Instead, businesses will have a week to register online at myclearwater.com and will be placed into a pool.

From May 18-31, randomly selected applicants will be invited to complete an application. Those who aren’t selected will be put on standby if there are more funds available or if others initially selected aren’t eligible.

From May 18 to June 12, staff will review the completed applications, but payments will not be instant.

“This will take a bit of time to push those dollars out,” Sanderson said.

Concerns

City Attorney Pam Akin was previously concerned that giving taxpayer money to private businesses might not be legal under the Florida Constitution. However, her staff came to the same conclusion that attorneys at cities administering similar programs, such as Largo and Tarpon Springs, have reached.

“We have concluded that you have the authority to make the finding that this is a public purpose,” she said, citing economic development and retention of businesses.

For councilors, the larger concern has been funding the ambitious $4 million program. Sanderson said about $500,000 could be funded through the federal CARES Act via Community Development Block Grants. The rest, however, would have to come from the city’s general reserves with the hopes that some could be through Community Redevelopment Agency or Downtown Development Board funds.

Council member Hoyt Hamilton said May 5 during a work session that pulling that much money out of the city’s reserves gave him pause, leading him to ask if they could cut the number in half.

“I want to help, but I don’t want this to be a Band-Aid that only keeps the business operating for a small amount of time before it doesn’t survive,” he said. “Usually when we’re spending reserve money, it’s for an absolute necessary program and it’s money that we get a somewhat of an ROI (return on investment) on. This is like investing money. I want to make sure I’m investing it in the right place and with the right companies, so that we can get the biggest bang for our buck.”

In response, Sanderson said the program would retain jobs directly and indirectly and lead to other benefits.

“We can assume that many businesses will, in fact, be saved by this and so we can assume perhaps that we will have fewer vacant buildings as a result,” she said, pointing out that keeping operating properties on the tax rolls would hopefully mean the city comes out even on the investment.

Mayor Frank Hibbard, who called the program “well-thought-out,” shared Hamilton’s concerns about tapping the reserves and that the money might not be enough to save some businesses.

However, after speaking with state and U.S. legislators, he is optimistic that some of that money will be reimbursed by the federal government.

“I am hopeful that we will get some money to reimburse the general fund down the road,” he said. “But we’ll see. At some point, the federal government also has to stop printing money.”