Local leaders ready themselves to put ARPA dollars to work in the Bay County region

After nearly two years of dealing with labor shortages, closures, gaps in the supply chain, and longer lead times, Bay County businesses may finally be able to look forward to an era of economic recovery and growth.

On Jan. 18, the Bay County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution that will allow $2 million of American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds to be used to assist and support businesses who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bay Future Inc. has been entrusted with the funds, though they will work collaboratively with the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and the Lake Huron Region Michigan Small Business Development Center to implement the various programs.

“The way that funds are going to be allocated is into three separate programs,” says Bay Future President and CEO Trevor Keyes. “These are going to try to assess and satiate the needs we are dealing with now during this fifth spike in COVID.”

Small Business Grant Funding, Small Business Support, and Talent Attraction and Retention are the three programs funded through the plan. The structuring of the programs allows for needs of the community to be met that are both immediate and in the future, says Ryan Tarrant, President and CEO of the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.

“The County Commission deserves a lot of credit for thinking about the short-, medium-, and long-term on this. This $2 million will affect all three of those things,” Tarrant says.

Keyes agrees, saying: “I think what this proposal does is it takes a systematic approach to curing the ills that a recovering economy and the pandemic have taken on small businesses. It does it from a multi-pronged approach, and it does it from an approach that allows for … sustainability and growth.”

Half of the $2 million is being allocated to the Small Business Grant Funding. 

“The small business grant is going to support small businesses in industries that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID. That million dollars will fund direct awards to small businesses that can show an impact from the ongoing pandemic,” says Keyes.

While final details are still being hammered out with the County, Keyes is eager to push out the grants as quickly as possible. Funding can be used for a variety of reasons, Keyes says, including, “...necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to COVID, gaps in revenue, or working capital to support expenses or as it relates to payroll.”

Local business owner Dr. Brian Hall is looking forward to the support for businesses after the challenges of the past two years. Hall owns True North Chiropractic, 4151 Shrestha Drive, Suite A, and is on the membership committee of Bay City’s BNI chapter, a networking group of more than 30 local business owners and leaders.

Hall says the COVID impacts have been daunting: “There have been many government regulations and mandates that have changed the way we are able to offer services and products to people, and the accessibility customers have had to our services. Almost every business owner I know was scrambling to find new strategies.”

“In my mind this grant funding will be most impactful. There are so many business owners that are still just one month away from closing. They are struggling to find employees. This will prop up businesses that were the backbone of our community prior to COVID,” says Hall.

The second program, Small Business Support, will attempt to address the needs of businesses that require more than just an injection of capital. For this effort, Bay Future will partner with the Small Business Development Center, an agency that aids in the start-up of small businesses through a multiple county region across the Great Lakes Bay Region.

A small business business consultant will be hired who can offer one-on-one consulting, in-depth knowledge, and assistance in dealing with some of the specific concerns due to the climate of the pandemic, according to Keyes.

“They can offer specialized services to help business owners grow and put an investment plan into action. This consultant will help them mobilize technology and with commercialization.”

Keyes recognizes that Bay County still has many mom-and-pop type businesses who rely solely on walk-in customers and the use of a cash register and register tape. These are some of the small businesses that could benefit immensely from the business consulting, he says..

“We now live in a commercialized world that allows you to sell items to people in China or provide services to those in Taiwan. We want to try and help those small businesses affected by COVID to try to take those next steps,” says Keyes.

In addition, this business consultant will help to identify current and future entrepreneurs for the 90-day refinement program, a 12-week training cohort that includes weekly video calls and small business discussion.

The third prong of the program, Talent Attraction and Retention, will be run through the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and will focus on keeping local talent here, as well as attracting employees to the area.

“This is a really transformational, generational opportunity that we have here with the American Rescue Plan Act funds that we need to take advantage of. Bay County is home to nearly 20% more residents that are above the age of 65 than the state of Michigan average,” Keyes says.

In addition to having a large aging population, Bay County’s labor participation rate lags behind the rest of the region and the state, and the area’s declining population figures are projected to take an even bigger hit in coming years.

“Over the last 40 to 60 years, we have lost a significant percent of our population. When you look at the projections over the next 20 to 25 years, we are anticipated to lose another 27.8% of our working age population – more than a quarter – and we already don’t have enough people,” says Tarrant. “How do we change that narrative and re-write the future that is laid out before us?”

The Chamber and Bay Future plan to catalyze interest in Bay County by taking a HelloWestMichigan.com approach to creating a portal that will provide access to job openings, the ability to vet resumes and connect job-seekers with employers, and to attract potential employees to the Bay County area.

Tarrants explains, “The significant piece of ours (the Chamber) that is a bit unique is actually doing placemaking and marketing … taking what is unique about Bay County – the waterfront community, the walkability, the festivals, the low cost of living – and pushing that out there. As great as it is that we all know what a wonderful community this is, if no one else knows about us, then nobody else is thinking about coming here.” 

Keyes says Bay Future is excited to get to work with these funds, especially considering the toll that has been taken on the business community. 

“We feel obligated and responsible for walking hand-in-hand with these small business owners through this journey. Our partners feel the same. It’s gut-wrenching to hear some of the stories about the struggles small businesses have had. We feel strongly that this is a part of that answer that we’ve proposed and has now been funded through the American Rescue Plan Act.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.