For Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA) business process manager Kierra Kimmie and research director Zachary Jones, spearheading and executing the HoCo RISE grant program could have probably been a lot easier.
But, as Kimmie recently told Technical.ly, the process behind this program — which, during two years at the COVID-19 pandemic’s height, granted about 60% of Howard County’s $21 million in federal business relief funds to those owned by minorities — required “a lot of integrity.”
“When you get too large of a volume, there’s a tendency to automate and push things through,” Kimmie said. “We had human eyes looking at our [applications for grants]. It wasn’t just machines. It wasn’t just, ‘Answer the questions and we’ll give [the grant] to you.'”
HoCo RISE ultimately gave 2200 grants to small businesses throughout the county. The amount of each grant depended on such variables as applicants’ staff and budget sizes. HCEDA was intentional about targeting those industries, like restaurants and hospitality, that were most impacted during the pandemic.
Kimmie highlighted a major reason that enabled the funds to reach those small businesses with the highest need: not having the program work on a first-come, first-served basis. Bigger companies have an accountant or CFO dedicated to applying for these kinds of grants, which can help them get in line early and receive funds in ways that small businesses cannot.
“They’re not worried about sitting on a computer at 9 a.m.,” Kimmie said. “If we had a first-come, first-served program, we’d miss out on a lot of people and small businesses that run the day-to-day operations of their businesses.”
The U.S. Census Bureau lists Howard County’s residents as about 55.9% White, 20% African American, 19% Asian and 7% Latinx. HCEDA sought to ensure that communities with historic divestment issues got the support they needed. Moreover, the HCEDA team sought to make sure the HoCo RISE application was as purposeful as possible, even if Kimmie noted hearing from business owners about how other counties’ application processes weren’t as difficult.
“Well, should it have been that easy for you to get that much money, and can you pay it back?” said Kimmie of her thoughts about these concerns. “And if you don’t have to pay it back, are you sure?”
Some are already feeling the aftershocks of Paycheck Protection Program loans that were a bit too easy to get. In one extreme case, a DC-area pastor now faces a 20-year prison stint for wire fraud and is on the hook to pay back $3.5 million in allegedly stolen funds.
The 2021 National Association of Counties (NACo) awards recognized the program’s innovation with an award for community and economic development.
Going forward, HCEDA now looks to fill a small and minority business officer position. Whoever takes this role will act as a dedicated resource to small and minority-owned businesses while making sure they can access funding like the Catalyst Fund loan, which finances startups looking to grow, or join the county’s directory of minority-owned businesses.
Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation. -30-