SOUTH PORTLAND — City officials are stepping up local support for small businesses struggling during the pandemic by offering hardship grants of up to $2,000 funded through a municipal property tax investment program.

The city’s COVID-19 Hardship Small Business Grant Program is meant to augment no-interest and potentially forgivable business loans that are being offered through various agencies and funded by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The City Council funded the hardship grant program with $200,000 in property taxes paid by Fairchild Semiconductor and set aside in a so-called tax increment financing (TIF) fund, which may be used for municipal infrastructure improvements and other approved purposes.

The city is accepting applications through July 31 from sole proprietors and businesses with up to 100 employees. The grants may be used for various purposes, such as rent and mortgage payments, operating and capital expenses, payroll and other personnel costs, business license fees and personal property taxes.

Eligible businesses include those that have remained open, have furloughed some or all of their employees, have closed temporarily or are in the process of reopening, said Bill Mann, the city’s economic development director.

“Almost every business in our community has been impacted in some way by the pandemic,” Mann said. “We realize $2,000 isn’t a huge amount of money, but for a business that’s facing many challenges, it may take the edge off and give them a little breathing room.”

Business owners who apply for a hardship grant will be encouraged to and assisted in seeking other financial help available through the city, Cumberland County and Greater Portland Council of Governments, Mann said. That includes loans for workforce retention, rehiring and other support offered through federal Community Development Block Grants and other programs under the CARES Act.

The city of Portland established its no-interest Rapid Response Micro Loan Program with $400,000 from unrestricted city loan funds. It provides loans up to $10,000 to Portland businesses with two to eight employees, and are 50 percent forgivable if the owner meets certain criteria. Recipients are ineligible for Portland’s other COVID-19 programs.

South Portland got permission to use the Fairchild TIF fund for the hardship grant program from the state Department of Economic and Community Development, Mann said. The fund holds more than $1 million and city officials may consider allocating an additional $200,000 to the hardship grant program if there’s great demand.

Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, praised South Portland officials for their innovative use of TIF money to help small businesses weather the pandemic.

“It’s a wonderful use of that funding,” Hentzel said. “The economic impact of COVID-19 is extraordinary and businesses will continue to struggle. There is tremendous need right now and any financial assistance will be greatly appreciated.”

Hentzel said she was glad the city made it relatively simple to apply for a grant through the city’s website and offered broad guidelines for who’s eligible and how they can spend the money.

“It’s great that it can be used for everything from making payroll to buying PPE for employees,” Hentzel said, referring to personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves.

Program guidelines, an informational sheet and the application form have been translated into Arabic, French, Portuguese, Somali, Spanish and Vietnamese, reflecting the city’s effort to support diversity and increase communication with residents who are immigrants.

If some of the $200,000 remains after fulfilling grants submitted by the July 31 deadline, the city will continue to accept applications and distribute hardship grants every two weeks as long as funding is available, Mann said.

Businesses are eligible for hardship grants whether or not they have applied for or received other assistance during the pandemic, but the expectation is that only companies with significant need will apply, he said.

“We’re trying to help by doing what we can with what we have to preserve as many jobs as possible,” Mann said. “We hope it makes a little bit of a difference.”

Applications may be submitted through the city’s website; or by filling out a PDF application found on the website and emailing with required documents attached to [email protected]; or by dropping off at the Economic Development Department at 496 Ocean St. Call 767-7603 for more information.

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