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Kern prepares small-business micro-grant program

Kern County will soon invite the smallest of local businesses to apply for grants of $2,500 apiece from a nearly $1 million fund set up to help vulnerable enterprises that missed out on earlier pandemic-relief programs.

Starting in probably mid-February, businesses with revenues of $50,000 or less in 2019, or those with the equivalent of five full-time employees or fewer, will be encouraged to fill out a two-page application form with the help of any of five local organizations.

If they can show a pandemic-related financial loss, and if they didn't receive money from programs such as California's relief grant program, up to 369 small businesses located in the county may qualify for money that can be used for things like buying supplies or making a down payment on a business loan.

Fueled by state money but administered locally on a first-come, first-served basis, the program is intended to help hard-hit businesses "get back on their feet," said Teresa Hitchcock, assistant county administrative officer over economic and workforce development.

Although the county has a year to distribute the money, Hitchcock expects it to be divvied up within six months as the county works with five local partners offering to do outreach and application assistance: Cal State Bakersfield's Small Business Development Center, Community Action Partnership of Kern, Kern County Employers' Training Resource, Kern Economic Development Corp. and the MCSC Kern Women's Business Center.

CSUB economist Richard Gearhart said by email the program appears to fit the needs of small businesses like those in hospitality, dining and leisure that have been hurt disproportionately during the pandemic. They rely more on foot traffic than larger operations with a more substantial online presence, he noted, and small businesses have a hard time raising prices, finding workers and navigating COVID-19 restrictions.

Gearhart cautioned that grant programs can be confusing and time-consuming for small businesses, but added, "A direct infusion of cash for more of the at-risk businesses is a good thing."

Kelly Bearden, director of CSUB's SBDC, said the new program's grant-application process will be relatively straightforward, with few of the questions small businesses have had to wrestle with in past pandemic relief efforts.

Bearden said he looks forward to helping small businesses leverage new grants into business loans that can be used for expansions, such as from an at-home operation into a physical office or store. But he said the grants will be flexible enough to address more immediate needs such as covering a month's worth of expenses to help businesses regain cash flow.

"Hopefully, this will fit the bill in doing that," he said.

Bakersfield hair salon owner Mark Lamas said the size of the grants make them look more like a single paycheck that might suffice to replenish supplies, but won't cover rent for a significant period.

Although he might not qualify, he said, maybe some of the independent stylists he works with will. He was especially hopeful the grants reach local Black and Hispanic business owners who can be hard to reach online.

The timing may be fortuitous. Lamas said prices charged to local customers generally have not kept pace with rising expenses.

"Everything has gone up in price. Everything," he said. "So, a lot of us are getting people back into the salon, but we're scared to raise our prices."