City officials should work hard to ensure a $400,000 pool of federal money for forgivable loans to small businesses struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic is distributed fairly, Mayor Brian Treece said during Monday night’s Columbia City Council meeting.

The council approved the loans as part of a package of amendments proposed by the Housing Programs Division for how the city should spend federal Community Development Block Grant and HOME funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The city also will shift about $220,000 toward housing assistance that will be provided through the Columbia Housing Authority.

Council members asked Housing Programs Director Randy Cole to do what he can to make sure the $400,000 loan fund isn’t tapped out quickly by businesses that have the resources to quickly fill out applications at the expense of others that might need more time.

“It’s important to me that it’s fair,” Treece said.

Qualifying businesses will be eligible to receive $15,000 if they retain at least one job for a low-to-moderate-income employee. That means the city would have enough money to provide loans to 26 businesses. Cole said he had planned to administer the grants on a first-come, first-served basis.

That’s how the city distributed $90,000 through a previous microenterprise loan program. Eighteen businesses received grants of $5,000, but the money was gone within hours of the application period opening.

Cole said that he and his staff felt the first-come, first-served process was best because it wouldn’t require his staff to pick and choose winners and losers. Treece, however, said he wanted to avoid having the new loans go to “the lucky 26.”

Ten of the 18 businesses that received money through the first microenterprise loan program were owned by women or minorities, Cole said. He also noted that he has had conversations with members of the African American community about how to spread the word to minority-owned businesses about the new loan program.

Cole said he would work from a list of minority- and women-owned businesses put together by Jim Whitt, director of Supplier Diversity Program Development for the city.

Treece suggested businesses be given more than 48 hours’ notice of the loans’ availability. Cole said he would try to give business owners at least a week’s notice before applications will be accepted.

A full set of the eligibility requirements for the loan is available in Cole’s memo to the council.

Earlier in the meeting, Treece proposed using the money toward a kitchen model, a space for homeless and low-income people to go to for a free meal, to avoid having the “26 lucky winners” be the only members of the community to benefit from the $400,000 loan program.

Treece earlier in the meeting suggested the money might better be spent on establishing a coordinated resource for the homeless. He referenced a “kitchen model” that has been successful in Springfield.

Under that model, Treece said, the city could coordinate with the commercial kitchen being developed at the Mizzou North building by the Business Loop Community Improvement District and social service providers such as Functional Zero and Turning Point to provide hot meals and other resources — even job training — for the homeless.

“I wonder if that (the kitchen model) wouldn’t be a greater impact to our community and those affected by this (COVID-19) than picking 26 businesses to give a forgivable loan to,” Treece said.

Second Ward Council member Mike Trapp liked the idea. Cole, however, said it would take considerable time and effort to coordinate such an effort and suggested it might be possible with the additional federal money the city expects to receive in the weeks to come. That would allow the Housing Programs Division to get the $400,000 out to the community quickly.

Cole said in his presentation that a survey of local small businesses indicated that just 45% of the 157 respondents anticipate they would be able to remain open for three months or longer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the end, the council unanimously passed the amendments proposed by Cole. In addition to the small-business loans, the amendments will provide $300,000 to the Columbia Housing Authority to offer housing to the homeless and assistance to low-income households struggling to pay rent.

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
  • Public Life reporter, Spring 2020. Studying news reporting at University of Missouri School of Journalism. Reach me at hayleyvawter@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • Molly Hart is an assistant city editor at the Missourian. She has previously reported on state government. She can be reached at mhart@mail.missouri.edu.

  • I've been a reporter and editor at Missouri community newspapers for 35 years and joined the Columbia Missourian in 2003. My emphasis at the Missourian is on local government and elections. You can reach me at swaffords@missouri.edu or at 573-884-5366.

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