WESTBROOK — A new city program is underway to help small businesses affected by the pandemic with rent payments.

City Councilors gave preliminary approval Monday to the Small Business Emergency Commercial Rental Assistance Program, which would provide up to 67 businesses affected by the pandemic with grants of up $1,500 each to pay their rent.

“Taking on additional loans and liabilities is a challenge for businesses,” said Economic Development Director Dan Stevenson. “Talking with businesses and others in the economic development industry, this is one of the biggest ways we can make a significant impact.”

The money would not have to be paid back. For a business to be eligible, it must have employed less than 50 employees between Jan. and March 1 and be able to demonstrate financial loss due to the pandemic.

The program would be paid for through the Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corporation, which is funded completely with WEIC revenue, not taxpayer money.

Councilors were unanimous in their preliminary approval but raised concerns over a portion of the grant that gives selection priorities to businesses who have not received funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, part of the CARES Act.

“We’ve seen news around this weekend ranking Maine as the No. 1  state (with) economic vulnerability,” Councilor Claude Rwaganje said. “One reason is the abundance of small businesses and reliance on retail and tourism. Anything we can do to support businesses is huge. (PPP) is not sufficient, so I support anything we can offer regardless.”

“The administration didn’t support putting that (portion in) but (did). Small businesses are in need,” Mayor Mike Foley said. “This is a small amount of money to bridge a gap. This won’t even cover most rents all the way.”

Ward 2 Councilor Victor Chau also recommended adding an amendment to prevent the grants being used to pay to landlords who are behind on property taxes. Council President Gary Rairdon, Vice President Anna Turcotte and Foley spoke against Chau’s proposal.

“These grants are to help the applicant. If we did that, we would be punishing the small business who is renting from someone behind on their taxes. This penalizes people who need the help the most. Let’s take the route of going after taxes, not rent,” Rairdon said.

The grant program is scheduled to receive final approval at the next council meeting, which has not been set.

Also at that Monday meeting, councilors gave preliminary approval to selling a city owned lot in the Westbrook Heights Business Park, off Saco Street, to Glass Solutions, currently at 23 Evergreen Drive in Portland for $140,000. Glass Solutions plans a 6,000 square foot building at the site

“Glass Solutions gets 99% of it’s supplies across the street at SIGCO (a glass manufacturer). Getting a business and supply chain close by is great for the economic development model, and we are really excited for this sale,” Stevenson said.

 

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