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Small business relief plan in the works locally

Freeborn County, the city of Albert Lea and the Albert Lea Economic Development Agency are considering a recovery and relief grant program to help struggling small business owners who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners is expected to have an emergency meeting Friday to consider designating $150,000 toward the program, and the city and ALEDA are also expected to contribute funds.

Commissioners initially discussed being a part of the program at their Tuesday board meeting but decided to table the vote until an emergency meeting Friday so they could receive more information about plans before voting.

Freeborn County Administrator Tom Jensen said ALEDA Executive Director Phillip Johnson presented the idea for the program after conducting a brief survey of small businesses in recent weeks.

Jensen said of the 58 businesses that responded, 38 said they are at an increased chance of having to permanently close their doors without some type of economic help.

Jensen recommended the $150,000 from the county come from money the county is receiving from the Freeborn Wind Farm that was designated by commissioners previously for use for capital funds or emergency operations. Businesses would have to meet certain criteria, such as being locally owned, and would be eligible for between $5,000 and $20,000, based on economic harm, according to the plans in place Tuesday. Jensen said the funds would be focused on businesses that “slipped through the cracks” on other forms of emergency relief. If the businesses meet the criteria, the funds would be forgiven after five years.

The administrator said the entities are modeling the program after models in Bemidji and Hastings.

Second District Commissioner Dan Belshan asked if the program could be a forgivable loan program so the county could recoup its money and use it for other other projects.

Jensen said the program would be specific to the pandemic and the county wouldn’t be expecting its money back.

“This is more of a lifesaver than an economic development stimulus package,” he said.

He noted while some businesses are doing well and making a lot of money right now, many in the hospitality and entertainment businesses are suffering.

Jensen gave a brief update about plans to reopen the county buildings to the public on June 8.

He said he plans to bring a plan before the board at its next regular meeting June 2, including protocol that will be required for people entering the building, such as masks and hand sanitizer. He is anticipating a soft opening with the buildings only open for reduced hours and by appointment only.

They are working on an online calendar system for scheduling appointments.

The closures have been in place since mid-March.