KULR8: Small business owners and economic leaders discuss COVID Relief Bill impacts

by Nikki DiRico

GREAT FALLS, Mont. – Senator Jon Tester and several Great Falls small business and economic leaders discussed direct impacts of another COVID-19 relief bill at the Celtic Cowboy Monday morning. Senator Tester was joined by Celtic Cowboy and Hotel Arvon Owner Peter Jennings, Great Falls City Commissioner Mary Moe and Brent Doney from the Great Falls Development Authority to discuss the American Rescue Plan and how it will help Great Falls recover financially from the ongoing global pandemic.

Senator Jon Tester said there’s a great need for Montana to get back to normal, and additional funding is an important first step.

“The bottom line is this: in order to fully reopen our economy and get folks back to work, we need to get vaccines into the arms of Montanans as quickly as possible. That’s exactly what the American Rescue Plan does and a whole lot more,” Sen. Tester said.

Montana is on track to receive more shots over the next few months so reopening plans can stay on track in the meantime. Vaccinations are crucial first step, and continued federal aid will help.

“$20 billion in critical vaccine funding that will boost vaccine supply so we can make sure every Montanan who wants to get a shot can get one free of charge. These vaccines are safe and they are effective and because of the increased vaccinations folks and families are finally turning back to work as our economy is starting to reopen, but the reopening is just a piece of the puzzle. We have to make sure that workers and families and businesses and local governments can come out of this crisis strong when the economy does bounce back,” Sen. Tester said.

Overall, the American Rescue Plan targets struggling small businesses and will offer additional resources to private companies hit the hardest with restrictions and closures over the past year. The plan is set to add a projected $1.37 billion to boost Montana’s local economies.

“This plan has $63 billion for existing and new COVID19 relief programs to aid a wide arrange of small businesses particularly in the hospitality and entertainment industries that have been hit incredibly hard by this pandemic including: around $50 million projected from the Montana economic development organizations to provide credit to businesses that wouldn’t otherwise receive it. $750 million in dedicated funding for the hardest-hit travel, tourism, and outdoor recreation businesses. $28.6 billion for a new grant program tailored for local restaurants and it fulfills President Trump’s goal of direct checks for hard working Americans that will help them make ends meet and support the jobs in our local economies. The bottom line is this: the American Rescue Plan provides critical resources that will get Montana’s businesses, schools, and communities reopen as quickly as possible. We’re already seeing the benefits,” Sen. Tester said.

$133 million will be divided between cities and towns while $207 million will go to counties. Great Falls alone can expect close to $20 million in additional aid. Further and exact figures have not been released to detail how much each city or county may receive. Projected figures, rules still being finalized. Department of Treasury had 60 days to finalize rules, about 30 days in, could be sooner than a month. Moe addressed some tangible ways to spend the money.

“The shots in the arms, the bucks in the bank, and the ability to get back to work is going to make such a difference in this community. One size does not fit all for Montana cities so it’s very important that the people at the local level that know what our own citizens are facing get to make decisions about how that money is going to be allocated. We hope to keep taxes low but most importantly, we hope to invest in infrastructure problems that are going to get people back to work,” Moe said.

According to Moe, this next relief package is not ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to Montana’s economy, and it’s up to local leaders to decide what’s best for their area when it comes to diving the money between small businesses.

For some, it could take many years to get back to pre-pandemic numbers.

“It’s estimated that some businesses will take five years to recover from this. The government’s done a nice job of providing debt and Governor Bullock did a nice job with CARES Act money, getting money into the hands businesses that helped millions of them survive, but now we need to pay that debt back into businesses so they’re going to need continued support through the American Rescue Plan we can provide more flexible, patient capital to help businesses through technical assistance that can help not only existing businesses, but startup entrepreneurs who lost their jobs or lost most of their income during this pandemic,” Doney said.

According to Doney, “the Golden Triangle is down several thousand jobs compared to this time last year. Unemployment benefits are helping people get by for now, but thousands of people without jobs are falling behind and are going into debt because of the current state of jobs field.” Great Falls was experienced a decade of economic growth before the pandemic and the Electric City was starting to make progress. Although the pandemic brought such prosperity to a halt, creating higher-wage jobs in the wake of the Coronavirus may be enough to help people earn enough wages to support their families and ultimately spend more to stimulate their local economy.

Hotel Arvon and Celtic Cowboy Owner Peter Jennings can attest. His hotel has been down 75% through the pandemic, his restaurant Celtic Cowboy was down by 60% overall. The hotel was closed 2.5 months while the restaurant was forced to close their doors for two. Numbers have been up since restrictions lifted, and additional funding from the American Rescue Plan could keep his businesses afloat.

“Recently they’ve gotten a lot better. One of the big things that really impacted us was staff and labor pool. It kind of dried up to tell you the truth. I’ve found that naturally, what we’ve had to offer, the people that are willing to work and are skilled and competent has risen,” Jennings said.

Looking at the bigger picture, local economic experts believe federal funding is a necessary temporary solution, but business owners must consider long-term resolutions as well.

“We need to get people back into jobs, but not only that, we were not the booming economy of Montana or the country before all of this started. We had a decade of economic growth and we were starting to make progress so we want to get back to creating higher-wage jobs so people are making enough money,” Doney said.