Beyond lucrative grants to revive struggling small businesses, Mesa’s Small Business Reemergence Program also will feature an “Escape to Mesa’’ marketing program and technical assistance to help businesses not only survive, but to thrive.
The “Escape to Mesa’’ marketing campaign, scheduled to begin in July, is intended to help the city’s slumping tourism industry. Technical assistance would help businesses improve their operations.
Mesa will start accepting applications for the technical assistance program on June 8 at mesaAZ.gov/CARESBizTechAssist.
It would include helping businesses function in a digital world by developing a web site, web-based marketing campaigns and improving accounting practices.
“We do believe the technical assistance program will have the biggest impact on these small businesses,’’ Assistant Economic Development Director Jaye O’Donnell said. “The grants were a wonderful opportunity, but providing these fundamental tools will have a longer-lasting effect.’’
O’Donnell said businesses will be asked to rank the type of assistance they need most, with about half of those that applied for the grants also requesting technical assistance.
She said the city might fund a contractor for up to $2,500 to develop a web site for a small business.
Beyond that, the business could benefit from signing onto a portal, using a log in number and attending a webinar free of cost on accounting or marketing.
“Many of these businesses did not have a website or it was way out of date,’’ O’Donnell said. “They need to have an e-commerce model.’’
She said 2,559 potential applicants requested a form and 1,882 applicants started filling it out but a little less than half completed it.
Applicants who submitted the form but were missing a document or made some other small error, were given an extension until Friday to complete their application, O’Donnell said.
“The program did what we wanted it to do. The vast majority are small, small businesses with less than 15 employees.’’
She added that about 250 of those businesses requested help in web-based marketing and advertising design and about 200 requested help with web hosting.
O’Donnell said she plans to brief the council next week on recommendations for grant awards, part of the city’s sweeping Mesa Cares program in response to the recession triggered by the COVID-19 virus pandemic.
Ryan Winkle, a former west Mesa council member, said that statistics he has reviewed show that more than 300 small businesses in west Mesa applied for the grants.
“We did direct outreach, direct engagement,’’ Winkle, now the chairman of the Asian Chamber of Commerce, said. “I think where we helped more than others is that we did a lot of hand-holding.”
He said west Mesa has a large number of small Asian and Latino businesses operated by immigrants and their families, with a focus on food.
The anticipated $6-$7 million in business survival grants are only one part of Mesa’s COVID-19 assistance efforts, using the $90 million in federal funds it received from the Coronavirus Relief Act and another $10 million in Community Development Block Grants, mainly dedicated to preventing homelessness and assisting the homeless.
Another $1 million has been added from the CDBG money to help people avoid foreclosure by making past due mortgage payments, and to make rent payments to keep their apartments, as national unemployment claims now exceed 40 million Americans since the pandemic started in March.
The new “Escape to Mesa’’ marketing campaign would be spearheaded by Visit Mesa, the city’s tourism arm. Those agreeing to book rooms for two nights or more will receive a $150 voucher for meals at Mesa restaurants.
Michelle Streeter, a Visit Mesa spokeswoman, declined comment on the program, saying “it’s truly a concept right now. We have to develop it.’’
But O’Donnell said she is confident Visit Mesa and the city will eventually reach an agreement on launching the campaign.
“The goal is to drive consumers to buy now and visit now,’’ O’Donnell told the council. “As you know, tourism was the first industry hit by the pandemic and it was hit the hardest.’’
In Mesa, perhaps the most dramatic blow to the tourism industry was when Major League Baseball cancelled the remainder of the Cactus League season on March 12 to protect against the spread of the highly contagious virus, which has claimed 857 lives statewide as of Thursday.
The Cactus League is more than exhibition games, with a city budget official describing it as “a second Christmas’’ in sales tax and bed tax revenue.
Mesa hosts the Chicago Cubs, the league’s annual meal ticket as attendance champions, and the Oakland Athletics.
“The city of Mesa has the product that travelers are looking for in a vacation,’’ O’Donnell said. She said that includes healthy, outdoor options.
She said the city anticipates that people who are unsure about traveling today will become more comfortable with it by the fall.
The campaign would focus on “staycations’’ and other getaways for couples, she said. The marketing is expected to cost $250,000, while the technical assistance program is expected to cost about $1.5 million.
Council member David Luna said he has been told that the tourism industry in Mesa suffered a $14 million loss from the COVID-19 pandemic as travel was greatly reduced during Stay at Home orders.
“It’s been a very significant loss, a real burden to our economy,’’ Luna said.
Council member Jeremy Whittaker said he is not anti-small business – and that he operates several around the state – but he questioned whether the city’s use of federal money on the technical assistance program is wise public policy.
“If a business can’t figure out how to build a website, should the government be propping them up,’’ he said.
With the pandemic far from over, it might be smart to put some of the federal dollars aside for use to supplement essential needs, Whittaker said.
The funds could be used on the technical assistance program if there is still money available near the December deadline for sending back unused funds back to the U.S. Treasury.
“I hope we exercise some caution as it comes to burning through these funds before we know the true impact at year’s end,’’ he said.