HELENA — Last year, the city of Helena dedicated $200,000 in federal COVID relief money to a program aimed at helping business owners navigating the post-pandemic environment. Now, we’re beginning to see what that funding is doing for businesses.
The funding is part of Helena’s allocation under the 2020 federal CARES Act. The city gave the money to Montana Business Assistance Connection, which took the lead in getting it to businesses.
MBAC set up two separate programs. One is a loan/grant program for larger projects, offering between $25,000 and $75,000 – 80% of it as a loan and 20% as a grant. The other offers direct grants of $5,000 to $15,000 for smaller projects. The money is intended for small businesses that have been impacted – negatively or positively – by COVID.
For about a year and a half, Dan Bay has been completely remodeling a space in the Lalonde Building, on the Walking Mall in Downtown Helena. He’s planning to open a new restaurant called The Hopper.
“We’re going to be a fast-casual kitchen and market,” he said. “We’re going to serve locally sourced made-from-scratch burgers, sandwiches, bowls, share plates, salads, and then we’ll have a fresh market with grab-and-go, take-and-bake dinners, dips, other fare.”
Bay says the pandemic has made things more challenging than he expected. Supply chain issues have made it harder to get the construction materials they need. That, combined with the challenge of lining up subcontractors, means delays and higher costs. He’s had to pay mortgage and utilities for several additional months without any revenue coming in.
“It’s just been kind of one thing after another – two steps forward, one step back,” said Bay.
He heard about the MBAC programs from the owners of the nearby Ten Mile Creek Brewing. He successfully applied for up to around $70,000 through the loan/grant program. He can use that funding to help finish construction, secure opening inventory and get staff ready.
“We are absolutely indebted to MBAC and the city loan/grant program, just to get us to completion, get the doors open so we can serve the community,” he said.
Bay said he’s hoping to be ready to open within three or four weeks, though he acknowledged there’s still a lot of uncertainty.
About four months ago, Michael McClary took over the Montana Inn, a Helena home dating back to the 1880s that has been converted into an extended-stay inn. He says, with the need for housing so high in the area, it’s been tough for him to keep up with the demand for rooms.
“It’s through the roof,” he said. “It’s quite crazy what’s going on right now, and so I’m here to help out with that niche a little bit.”
He’s been in the process of remodeling and refurbishing the building, with plans to eventually expand the number of available rooms. He wants to serve a wide variety of needs, from working professionals needing a place to stay for a month or two to people looking for six-month and longer-term accommodations.
“I knew the owner, so what was lucky about that was we had a good working relationship and still do,” McClary said. “He worked on it for 20 years, and now I’m able to kind of take it to that next level. I’m not trying to recreate and make it something that it’s not.”
McClary got a direct grant from MBAC: $7,500 to help him replace the old wire fence around the inn with a more aesthetically pleasing scalloped fence.
“This is really helpful; they were really easy to work with,” he said. “I’m looking forward to making sure that my property is going to look good for them, because this is all about promoting Helena and Lewis and Clark County.”
Charmayne Kaminski, a loan officer with MBAC, says they received four applications for the loan/grant program and 19 for the direct grants. They were able to award 11 grants, though one recipient ended up declining the funding. MBAC funded all four loan/grant applications, including advancing some money from other funds when the total went above the original $200,000 from the city.
MBAC has just over $3,000 remaining from the grant funding. Since that is less than the minimum grant amount, Kaminski says they’re in conversations with the city about what can be done with that money.