Commercial fishing boats are rafted together in May 2016 in the harbor in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Commercial fishing boats are rafted together in May 2016 in the harbor in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

States expands small business grants

The AK CARES Grant program is being modified in response to calls for changes.

Starting Thursday, Alaska’s statewide grant program will be available to even more applicants — specifically, commercial fishers, nonprofits and businesses that have already received some form of federal relief.

The AK CARES Grant program, which still has yet to distribute more than $200 million in financial relief meant for small businesses in Alaska, is being modified in response to calls for changes from people like Tim Dillon, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District.

Dillon spoke with the Clarion on Tuesday about the upcoming changes and how they were ultimately implemented.

“Is this going to be the end-all? No, it’s not,” Dillon said. “This kind of a mid-step. There’s still other things that need to be done.”

What’s new

On Thursday a new application portal will be available online at akcaresonline.org. Dillon said that Credit Union 1 will no longer be the only vendor processing the grant applications, and all the information needed for both applicants and vendors will be consolidated to one site to streamline the process. Credit Union 1 is currently dealing with a “log jam” with thousands of grant applications still in the review process, Dillon said.

“Realistically, that’s what we have right now,” Dillon said. “Credit Union 1 from their president on down, they’ve been super to work with, but you have to remember there are thousands of people that need help.”

In addition to the new application portal, the grant program will soon be available to a wider range of Alaska businesses. Alaskans with commercial fishing licenses, 501(c)(6) nonprofits and businesses that received up to $5,000 in Paycheck Protection Program or Economic Injury Disaster Loan funds will all be eligible for grants starting Thursday.

When first pushing for these changes, Dillon and others expected that they would have to be made legislatively. A lawsuit filed by a Juneau resident in May alleged that the state’s administration of these funds was unconstitutional and required legislative authorization. The state was unable to make any changes to the grant program on its own until the Legislature convened or the lawsuit was resolved.

Although the lawsuit has been allowed to proceed, a Juneau judge recently blocked the plaintiff Eric Forrer’s injunction that would have stopped the funds from being distributed and found that the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development (DCCED) had a “reasonable basis” for expanding the program’s eligibility criteria, according to reporting from Alaska Public Media.

Dillon said that this court decision led Gov. Mike Dunleavy and DCCED Commissioner Julie Anderson to start putting those changes into place.

“Once the injunction didn’t go through, I think people felt comfortable enough to say you know what, we’ve got to get this out there. We’ve got to get this moving. Let’s get it done,” Dillon said. “Because there was no way the Legislature was going to come together before the election here in a couple of weeks.”

What’s next

Dillon said that eventually, the grant program should be available for all small businesses in Alaska, which is a decision that the Legislature will likely vote on if they convene after the primary elections.

“When I say everybody, I mean any small business that’s owned by an Alaskan that’s 50 people or less,” Dillon said. “It doesn’t matter if you qualified for a loan, really a loan should have nothing to do with a grant. So that’s going to have to be opened up, and until we do that, you’re not going to spend $290 million.”

The distribution of these funds has been slow-going. On June 30, Dillon told the Clarion that approximately $6.4 million of the $290 million had been distributed across Alaska. Over a month later, on Aug. 4, that figure was up to approximately $18.8 million. That includes $1,271,081 for businesses on the Kenai Peninsula. By comparison, Dillon said that the municipal grants being distributed by the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the incorporated communities on the peninsula have already surpassed $30 million.

“I am very proud of what our borough and what our individual cities have done,” Dillon said. “They’re an example for the rest of the state, plain and simple. If the rest of the state follows suit, you know, we’re going to be OK through this.”

Small business owners who need assistance with any local, state or federal grant and loan applications can contact Dillon at tim@kpedd.com.

Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at bmazurek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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