A total of $11.4 million has been distributed to Cody businesses as a result of the CARES Act COVID-19 business relief program managed by the Wyoming Business Council.
Although these funds were intended for businesses to stay afloat and recoup losses to provide stabilization to the economy, some local businesses also used the funding to grow and expand.
The money was doled out in three different grants from June-September, known as Interruption, Relief, and Mitigation funds.
In order to prove a need for the grants, businesses had to submit tax documents and financial records and also go through a number of fraud checks to verify the legitimacy of their operations.
Josh Dorrell, CEO of the Wyoming Business Council, said although it is possible a number of businesses took advantage of the system and exaggerated their needs, this kind of fraud will be investigated by the FBI and Wyoming Divisions of Criminal Investigations if discovered.
“We want to do our best to make sure people aren’t fraudulent and put those processes in place,” Dorrell said. “I just look at it and say (to people who attempt fraud), ‘what a gamble, what a ridiculous gamble.’”
He said about 7% of the applications have been denied.
Different grants for different needs
Mitigation Funds, open from Aug. 4-Sept. 15, were for all businesses and nonprofits incurring employee and customer health and safety expenses that were a direct impact of COVID-19. These grants were eligible up to $500,000.
Relief Funds, open from Aug. 4-Sept. 15, were for small businesses and nonprofits that lost revenue due to public health orders and/or incurred COVID-19 related expenses. These grants were eligible up to $300,000.
Relief Funds recipients who created a Future Extraordinary Expenditure Plan in their application for COVID-19 related infrastructure updates are required to expend those funds and report on the use of these funds by Dec. 15.
Interruption Funds, open from June 8-July 2, were given for losses during the initial months of pandemic response to businesses that directly or indirectly lost revenue due to COVID-19 local or state government health orders. These grants were eligible up to $50,000.
In addition, the Legislature set aside $50 million of this funding for businesses explicitly closed as a result of state orders, funds dubbed the Supplemental Closure stipend. There were six of these grants delivered locally.
There were 166 Interruption, 60 Relief, and 28 Mitigation grants provided in Cody.
A new round of grants is opening on Monday with the premier of the Agriculture and Endurance Funds.
As part of the Agriculture Funds, $90 million is being made available for Wyoming ranchers and farmers who have lost revenue due to public health orders or incurred COVID-19 related expenses. The Endurance Funds include $24 million for ongoing pandemic response due to COVID-19 related losses and expenses.
Brian and Kent Holiday were the highest Cody grantees, receiving $700,000 each.
Kent Holiday runs finance-related firms while Brian Holiday’s businesses, Teachcast, LLC and Eleutian Technology, involve online language instruction for global business and education entities.
Brian Holiday said his businesses were on the verge of major layoffs when the pandemic first started.
Although Teachcast and Eleutian are based around virtual learning, many of the Southeast Asian students they work with did not have webcam access in their homes and thus did their video conferencing with the companies at their school. When the schools were closed, it cut out a huge part of their business.
“When the schools shut down all the kids went home and that was it, we weren’t teaching any lessons at all,” Brian Holiday said.
But since receiving more than $100,000 in Paycheck Protection Program funds in the spring, Brian Holiday was able to retain all of his 40-50 employees, collaborating with Zoom Video Communications to deliver an at-home model of their services to many students. Their rebound was so robust that they were even able to add 8-10 employees in the past month, most of which Brian Holiday said are Big Horn Basin residents.
“It’s actually a huge advantage because where our competitors are cutting jobs, we’re hiring and ramping up because (COVID-19 is) going to end,” Brian Holiday said.
He said the forced innovations allowed the company to develop a new platform of business that will pay dividends in the future, allowing them to manage teachers in addition to students.
“If we get lucky and catch it just right, which it appears we have been, we can actually be bigger than we would have been,” Brian Holiday said.
In 2010, the Wyoming Business Council authorized a $3 million grant for construction of Eleutian’s headquarters on 33rd Street.
Another big receiver was Michael’s Tacos, given $551,888 by the Business Council, the third-highest sum in Cody. The business did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Fellow Mexican restaurant Zapata’s only received $50,000. Both restaurants received $50,000 from the Interruption Fund, but Michael’s Tacos also received funds from the two other grants.
Dorrell said many businesses were not aware of what they were eligible for in the first round of grants, which makes the Ag and Endurance grants as important as ever for most businesses.
“People don’t know when they go by a business, they don’t know what kind of business they generate,” Dorrell said. “Nobody knows what somebody’s books look like and they don’t know how hard they were hit in actuality.”
Jorge Cardenas, owner of Monte Christo Bar and Grill, HomeGate Real Estate and Jewels Digital Vending Advertising was just launching Monte Christo and HomeGate when the pandemic hit.
“I’m just a little guy trying to get up there,” he said.
Cardenas said he hired an accountant specifically for the purpose of applying for grant money. Cardenas was able to receive a large chunk of the $365,900 he was granted, the seventh largest amount in Cody, by using projected revenues.
“If these established (real estate) brokers are selling an average of 12 houses a month, and they’re making so much a year, I’m projecting that within a year of establishment I should be at least there,” Cardenas said. “That’s what I did for that.
“It comes down to how much you value yourself.”
Dorrell said using future projections were not eligible for most businesses, but new businesses could apply an average of their first few months in 2020 and use that figure to come up with the full 2019 picture to determine what they would have made in 2020 sans COVID-19. Cardenas was also granted revenue based off the digital screens he rents out to advertisers, which he places on top of the four vending machines he owns around town.
Dorrell also stressed the application process is not crystal-clear.
“Our take is be cautious, be conservative, and have a legitimate justification based on who is looking at these and who could be looking at these,” he said.
Our Place Cafe on the West Strip received $19,422 from the Interruption stipend as the business was closed for nearly two months. Co-owner Bree Wilkins said the business used those funds primarily for cleaning, repairs and paying employees.
“We were closed for so long and even when we did open back up we had to space out the tables,” she said.
Wilkins said they also used some of the funds to purchase a credit card reader. Prior to the pandemic, the business had been cash only.
Applications for both the Agriculture and Endurance grants are open until Nov. 18 and applicants can receive up to $250,000 for each grant. Webinars explaining these grants in more detail are available at wyobizrelief.org.
Dorrell said their department will continue to take applications even after these deadlines, in case more grant money is allocated from the federal government.
A total of 5,599 businesses and nonprofits have used the grants statewide.
“As you walk through the streets of your town, a lot of these folks have had a pretty hard year and some have not and we hope they don’t try to claim money that’s not really theirs,” Dorrell said. “It’s a challenge, but we want to make sure with all the businesses that are out there that they get a chance to survive and keep their communities strong.”
For a full list of recipients, visit: http://www.wyopen.gov/wbc?utm_source=BenchmarkEmail&utm_campaign=BRP&utm_medium=email