jeremy whitaker

 Jeremy Whitaker

Mesa small businesses can start applying tomorrow, May 11, for grants intended to help them survive the shutdown ordered to slow the spread from the deadly COVID-19 virus.

Businesses will have to move quickly to fill out applications online and supply the documentation required to qualify for a slice of $90 million in federal aid the city received from the federal government under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

The two weeks businesses have for applying for grants at mesaaz.gov/CARESbizgrant expires May 24.

Although the Mesa Small Business Reemergence Program has fewer strings attached than many federal programs, it is far from a blank check.

 Grant money can only be spent on utilities and rent payments and is intended to tide businesses over during the pandemic so they can reopen as social distancing measures are relaxed.

Applications will be considered incomplete if they do not include such documentation, such as rental invoices and utility bills covering the period starting on March 1. They must also download a W-9 tax form that verifies the business’ address as being in Mesa.

City Manager Chris Brady has set aside $20 million for the program. 

The size of awards will be determined when the Mesa City Council decides how to divvy up the money, based upon demand and the amount of funds available.

Among the questions still unresolved is whether businesses will be issued a check, or if the city will pay their rent and utilities directly and notify them that their accounts have been credited.

Mayor John Giles favors the latter option to avoid abuse of the program. 

Businesses would be notified by email during the first two weeks of June if their applications have been approved and the value of the grants, no matter which option for distributing the money is selected by the council.

 “We really want to make sure we are helping out the businesses that are planning to re-open. We are still working out the details on the grant dispersement,’’ said Jaye O’Donnell, Mesa’s assistant economic development director.

“The goal is to help as many Mesa businesses as we can who were negatively impacted by COVID-19,’’ she said.

Restaurants, retail stores and hotels have been decimated by the shutdown, according to the Mesa CARES survey.

An analysis of Mesa business activity by Homebase – a business tracking service in San Francisco – and performed at the Tribune’s request quantifies the obvious.

It shows there is no shortage of businesses and employees hurting from the pandemic-driven recession.

Tracking a series of Mesa ZIP codes, Homebase found the recession gradually worsened after starting in early March. It hit its lowest ebb in April and has lifted slightly in recent days.

“The clear takeaway from the data and research with our customers is that the economic recovery is going to be slow until consumers are willing to go out again,’’ said Ray Sandza, vice president of data and analytics for Homebase.

The worst day was April 12, when Homebase found that hours worked plummeted 79.6 percent from January, business operations were down 64.1 percent and the total number of employees working dropped down 76.9 percent.

Slight signs of recovery were noted on May 5, when hours worked were down 47.7 percent, business operations were down 31.9 percent and the total number of employees working was down 46.9 percent.

“No, it’s not surprising. It’s sad, it’s tragic. I hope we can re-energize these businesses,’’ O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell conceded that she is feeling some anxiety as the city launches a major business bailout program under the pressure of knowing the awards may very well decide if a business survives.

“There’s a lot of sleepless nights,’’ O’Donnell said, although she knows her efforts will help many people in the end. “There’s really a lot of positive energy. Everyone’s heart is in the right place. It’s really a good cause.’’

Giles said he wants to build additional safeguards into the program so that the money goes to small businesses that need it the most, with as much transparency and as little preferential treatment as possible.

“The beauty of this is that it’s not an overly bureaucratic federal program,’’ Giles said. “The danger of this is it’s not an overly bureaucratic federal program.’’

He said the safeguards, such as making the rent and utility payments directly, would assure the money is spent for its intended purpose rather than being diverted for an unjustified purpose, such as buying a new truck.

“This money was given to us for a specific purpose, to help businesses recover and keep business afloat,’’ Giles said.

Eventually, O’Donnell said she is planning to give the council a report that would show how much money certain types and sizes of businesses are requesting, such as those with four or less employees or 50 or less employees.

By using a dashboard tool, “we can sort by industry, type of business, size of business,’’ she said. “We have a model that will help us with the decision-making.”

City employees reviewing the applications will be flying blind, tracking only the application numbers and not knowing the names of businesses applying for grants, O’Donnell said. 

The review process is expected to take about seven to 10 days.

Giles said the council eventually would use the information obtained by O’Donnell from the applications to decide how the grants are divvied up.

“We are going to be setting policy. We are not going to make individual funding decisions,’’ Giles said.

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