The sluggish flow of applications for Maine’s $200 million emergency grant program for small businesses and nonprofits has some economic development agencies in southern Maine worried that many potential applicants are either unaware of the program or don’t know how to apply.

“We all expected to get flooded – we are not getting flooded,” said Josh Kochis, finance director at the Greater Portland Council of Governments. The council is one of seven economic development agencies processing grant applications for the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

Economic recovery grants of up to $100,000 are available to Maine-based businesses and nonprofits with 50 or fewer full-time equivalent employees and anticipated revenue losses of at least 20 percent as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Janet Mills announced the program on Aug. 20, tapping into the $1.25 billion available to the state through the federal CARES Act.

Since the grants will be calculated based on business losses resulting from the coronavirus pandemic proportional to overall losses for all applicants – and not on a first-come, first-served basis – businesses and nonprofits might not have felt an urgency to apply.

But with the Sept. 9 application deadline coming up next Wednesday, Kochis worries potential applicants may not know the aid is available, may question their eligibility or could be having trouble applying. At least 6,000 grant applications were expected, but so far the program has garnered about 830, Kochis said.

“There are not that many applications coming in,” he said. “We are concerned that people are not aware of the program.”

Kochis hopes affected organizations don’t wait until the last minute to apply for a grant. Some applications could be rejected because of mistakes, including if a business owner applies for affiliated businesses separately, he said. If a mistake occurs at the deadline, businesses and nonprofits might not have a chance to reapply.

“If your application is incorrect, you do not have the ability to go in and correct it,” Kochis said.

The state Department of Economic and Community Development has a 1-800 hotline and email address for questions about the program, as well as frequently asked questions document on its website. The online grant application portal will close at 11:59 p.m. next Wednesday, but the department may work with applicants afterward if there are issues, spokeswoman Kate Foye said.

The department conducts weekly webinars about the program, and based on attendance, Foye expects some people to wait until the last minute to submit an application.

“We continue to encourage people to apply early in case there are issues with their application and to ensure that their application is received prior to the deadline,” Foye said.

Immigrant-owned businesses that were unable to get federal financial support from the CARES Act also seem to be having a hard time understanding the program and applying, said Marcel Ntagora, an outreach associate with the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

“Many people who are willing to apply don’t have experience with grant applications,” he said.

Collecting the information they need to demonstrate financial harm as a result of the pandemic is a particular issue.

“They don’t have enough information to identify the losses,” Ntagora said.

Applicants have to provide tax and revenue information, an industry identification code and a Data Universal Numbering System number, used to identify businesses and track federal grant disbursements. The grant application warns that receiving such a number can take at least two days.

That can be a lot for applicants to provide on short notice, said Chuck Morgan, economic development director for the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission.

“If they don’t do a lot of business with government entities, there is a lot of information they have to obtain for one of these grants,” Morgan said.

New programs such as the one that created Maine’s economic recovery grants create plenty of questions and issues, which is another reason to get applications in well before the deadline, Morgan said.

“I encourage everyone to get online and submit their applications as soon as possible so any issues can be addressed before the deadline,” he said. “Don’t wait until the last moment, because only bad things can happen at the last moment.”

Funds awarded through the program can be used to cover payroll and expenses such as rent, utilities, some inventory and costs associated with reopening, such as personal protective equipment, among other costs. The grants are taxable and may be subject to audit, the economic development department has said.

Grant applications in the Lewiston-Auburn region have been low, but Amy Landry, executive director of the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, hopes some applicants are still compiling paperwork and will submit requests for aid in the next week.

“We haven’t had the demand yet I think people might have expected,” Landry said. “I don’t know why that is.”

There are some conditions that could make applicants ineligible, such as having a full-time workforce of more than 50, or having pandemic-related losses of less than 20 percent. Some organizations are ineligible for funding – such as industry trade associations, lobbying groups, private schools, nursing homes and country clubs – and applicants’ tax payments must be in good standing.

But Landry also wonders whether the grants have attracted enough attention.

“I’m not sure there is wide awareness of the program,” she said. “There is some question about how many people know about it.”

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