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‘Help is there’: Carroll County small businesses lifted up by grant funds offered during COVID-19 pandemic

Debbie Scheller can’t keep puzzles in stock at her Sykesville bookstore.

“Puzzles and books are really essential right now,” the owner of A Likely Story Bookstore said.

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Carroll County is doling out checks to hundreds of local businesses, including Scheller’s, through a new emergency relief program established in response to the pandemic of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Checks for $1,250 apiece have been sent to small businesses around Carroll since the Board of County Commissioners created the Small Business COVID-19 Emergency Relief Grant Fund on March 31, according to Jack Lyburn, the county’s director of economic development.

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As of April 22, Lyburn said 440 checks totaling $550,000 had been sent to local businesses. By the end of the week ending May 1, 600 checks will have been sent, Lyburn told the commissioners at their April 23 meeting.

The money comes from a small business loan fund that was set up about seven years ago to help businesses that couldn’t get loans from banks. Lyburn said the fund had not been heavily utilized lately, so he offered it to the commissioners when they sought a way to help local businesses suffering during the downturn in economic activity resulting from the pandemic, which has forced residents to shelter at home to limit exposure and spread of the virus.

Scheller will use the check she received from the county to help pay the rent for A Likely Story Bookstore, whose puzzles and books have helped customers keep boredom at bay.

Some people are buying books to read as a family, she said, and students have school reading assignments they’re completing at home. The classics have been popular, such as stories by Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and Scheller has noticed some old books making a comeback.

Scheller has transitioned to curbside pickup and free local delivery, in addition to shipping, to keep her business afloat. She said that while many people are buying products online, sales aren’t what they were prior to the pandemic.

The county grant will help ease that financial burden, Scheller said.

The commissioners first gave approval for $500,000 of the approximately $850,000 fund to be used for small business grants. Then they expanded the program to sole proprietors and home-based businesses, and voted to use another $250,000 from the fund, according to a county news release.

The county received 160 applications from home-based businesses and sole proprietors within 45 minutes when the portal opened to them on Tuesday, according to Lyburn. He said more tried to apply after the portal closed.

On Thursday, Lyburn told the commissioners that about $93,000 remained in the fund. They voted, 4-0, to use it for small business grants. Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, was temporarily absent from the remote meeting due to technical difficulties.

Savage Dance Company in Eldersburg is using its check to establish an online registration program and provide students with access to professional dance classes online, according to owner Nikki Savage.

“I never even thought I would have to plan for, accommodate something like this," Savage said. “We’ve been running a well-oiled machine, then [the pandemic] hits.”

Savage closed the doors of her business March 13, the day Carroll County announced its first case of COVID-19. Since then, they’ve lowered the cost of tuition and offered virtual lessons through platforms such as Zoom, an online video conference site.

Savage’s husband Greg was browsing the internet for grant opportunities when he came across Carroll County’s program. They applied and were accepted within a week.

“It’s going to help me keep my business afloat,” Savage said.

Savage used part of the money to upgrade the studio’s subscription to a virtual dance lesson service, in which students can learn from famous dancers, some of which have starred in television shows, “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars.”

The business owner said she’s grateful to live in a county that’s looking out for small businesses.

“Help is there, you just have to reach out," Savage said. "I’ve been in business 18 years. I’m certainly not going to let [COVID-19] bring me down.”

Savage and Scheller both said they received their checks shortly after applying, and praised the county for the rapid turnaround.

Lyburn said he is spending much of his days reviewing applications to get money into the hands of business owners.

“The commissioners really want to help small business because it’s the backbone of Carroll County,” he said. “It’s taking up all my time, but it’s my number one priority right now.”

Carroll County small businesses can apply for funding online at https://carrollbiz.org. The application portal will open sometime the week of April 27 and will be announced in a county news release, according to Chris Winebrenner, spokesperson for the county.

Grants are given on a first-come, first-served basis. Businesses may apply for funding to support payroll, rent, mortgage payments, utility expenses or other similar expenses that occur in the ordinary course of business operations, according to the fund’s website. Nonprofits and medical service providers are not eligible.

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