With HoCo RISE business grants, Howard County seeks to spread the help during coronavirus pandemic

Almost immediately after the county began accepting applications for HoCo RISE business relief grants June 11, the owner of the Phoenix Upper Main brew pub in Ellicott City was filling out an online form in hopes of securing $2,500 for his business.

With coronavirus policies constantly evolving and changing in the county and state, Phoenix owner Mark Hemmis said he needed the money to keep up.


“Rules change quickly,” Hemmis said. “We needed all the help we could to stay on top of business safety during this time.”

Currently in Howard County, indoor dining establishments are restricted to 50% capacity with tables required to be 6 feet apart; outdoor dining is also available at many restaurants. The limits have been in place since June 12 after Gov. Hogan announced he was loosening restrictions. In recent weeks, as coronavirus cases have surged across the state, some jurisdictions have reinstituted stricter policies, like in Baltimore city where a two-week suspension of indoor dining has been in place since Friday.


Hemmis was one of 628 applicants for the business relief grants, according to Larry Twele, CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

The county offered local restaurants, retailers and farms a chance to apply for a $2,500 grant to assist in the recovery and response to the pandemic. Two weeks ago, County Executive Calvin Ball announced the grants would expand to assist local hotels and child care.

The grants came out of the $56.8 million in CARES Act funding Howard received from the state. Of the CARES Act funding for Howard, $5.7 million was allocated to the business relief grants.

Twele said the county evaluated how other jurisdictions structured their programs. He said a first-come-first-serve program could be limiting in reach, and that it would be better to spread the money among as many businesses as possible, even if the checks would be smaller.

“We know how many retail [stores] and restaurants there are in the county, and we were going to do a smaller amount and try to reach everybody,” Twele said. “We looked at the sectors that were forced to close down because they were deemed non-essential.”

For Twele, reaching as many county businesses as possible was the goal of the program.

“When you do larger amounts to everyone, you can only serve the first few hundred that come in the door,” he said.

Of the 628 applications the Howard County Economic Development Authority had received as of Tuesday, 224 were retailers, 152 restaurants, 46 farms, 195 child care facilities and 11 hotels.

Of the total $5.7 million available, approximately $2.7 million was allocated to retail stores, $2 million to restaurants and $800,000 to farms.

Of the retail applicants, 57% are women-owned and 41% are minority-owned; of the restaurant applicants, 38% are women-owned and 51% are minority-owned.

While some applications have been reviewed and approved, others are still pending.

Hemmis, for example, was approved and received a check in the mail Monday. For some business owners, however, like Sarah McGee Mariman of the Thirty Hair salon, the wait continues.


McGee Mariman has applied to and received a plethora of grants and loans for her Columbia business since the pandemic shut her down in March. She received funding from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, a Small Business COVID-19 Emergency Relief grant from the state of Maryland for $10,000 and a grant from the national Aveda Salon & Spa Relief Fund. She was approved for but did not accept a Maryland Small Business COVID-19 Emergency Relief Loan, which she would have had to pay back.

“Had you talked to me three weeks ago, I would have said we’re good, [we don’t need the county’s relief grant]. But the surge [in coronavirus cases] is taking away our customers,” McGee Mariman said.

On Tuesday, Maryland reported 648 new coronavirus cases, and the state has also confirmed 1,000 or more cases in two of the past four days. Howard County had a total of 3,442 coronavirus cases as of Tuesday, according to county data, which was an increase of 31 since Monday.

With 14 employees and an inconsistent schedule due to the surge in cases and clients canceling or needing to reschedule appointments, the grant could provide McGee Mariman some stability in an otherwise uncertain time.

“It would have helped us get a little more caught back up,” she said. “[Not having the] $2,500 isn’t going to shut us back down.”

McGee Mariman said if she received the grant, she would spend it on personal protective equipment. Since Thirty Hair salon reopened June 1, the salon has gone through 700 disposable masks for clients and employees, and cleaning supply bills have also mounted.

Twele said the county continues going through and approving applications, so McGee Mariman still has a chance to receive a grant. It’s a waiting game for now.

In order to receive one of the grants, the business has to be in good standing with the county, according to Twele. For example, business owners needed to pay their taxes and water bills on time. Businesses also needed to have commercial space that required customer foot traffic to essentially operate.

Barry Gibson, owner of Forget-Me-Not Factory, a gift shop in Ellicott City, was another business owner who was approved and received his grant July 19. He used the $2,500 to upgrade his computer and social media security to help keep the business safe with more business being done online.

He also used the funding to keep up with regular bills that continued to pile up even as business slowed, including flood insurance, a hefty bill for businesses like Forget-Me-Not Factory that are located on Main Street in Ellicott City which has been prone to catastrophic and deadly flooding.

“It was a helping hand, unexpectedly,” Gibson said.

The county has until the end of the year to use the entirety of the $5.7 million in CARES Act funding to help local businesses. So far, it has spent about half of the money, according to Twele, and it is considering two options of how to spend the rest: broadening the eligibility to other businesses or reserving the money for the latter part of 2020.

Applications are open until Friday for child care facilities and hotels.


For more information and to apply online, go to hceda.org/c19grants.

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