BEMIDJI -- More than 1,000 businesses were assisted in the past several months by a special loan set up by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, including 36 in the Greater Bemidji area.

However, it wasn't the only form of assistance created in short order when the coronavirus pandemic resulted in businesses having to close their doors.

Over the spring months, many community organizations and government units created several options to help businesses weather the COVID-19 storm. According to Greater Bemidji Economic Development Executive Director Dave Hengel, the organization was involved in distributing $2.1 million in assistance in various programs to 110 businesses.

The 36 assisted by way of DEED's Small Business Emergency Loan received a total of $1.1 million in funding. Hengel said that the loans went to businesses across a 45-mile radius around Bemidji.

"It was critical, and they came out really quickly after the governor made the announcement to close businesses such as bars and restaurants," Hengel said. "The timing was so important, since it was the first program that became available to those directly impacted by COVID-19."

In total, more than $27 million in loans were distributed from $30 million that the state set aside in special revenue funds. According to a release, the remaining $2.8 million was distributed to lenders to assist with loan administration and technical expenses.

The loans, which ranged from $2,500 to $35,000, went to businesses lacking adequate cash flow to withstand a temporary closure. The loans had 0% interest and were forgivable up to 50% if the business maintains operations. In Greater Minnesota, businesses received $14 million in loans.

"Small business emergency loans helped hundreds of businesses across Minnesota survive the initial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic," said DEED Commissioner Steve Grove in a release. "DEED launched this program in record time to get emergency financial assistance out to businesses as quickly as possible. We could not have done this without the hard work and collaboration of our 22 lending partners throughout the state."

"I give DEED a lot of credit for their ability to move quickly," Hengel said. "I think in the end without that support, I don't know if many places would've been able to survive. The program is finished now, and these are five year loans. So, there will be constant communication between ourselves, DEED and the borrowers. We'll continue to monitor how these businesses are doing and how we can help them more, because the DEED funds are a piece to a puzzle of how we support our businesses."

Other pieces of that puzzle were local loan funds organized by Greater Bemidji and partners. One was an emergency fund created from the combined effort of Greater Bemidji, Beltrami County and Paul Bunyan Communications.

Hengel said five loans were distributed through the emergency fund, and that it is still available to businesses in need.

"Our intent is to keep that open because six months from now we might be in a different place," Hengel said. "If there are still businesses trying to weather this storm, they can certainly contact me."

The other initiative was the Hometown Business Relief Fund, created from an anonymous donation of $500,000. According to Hengel, the fund was used to make loans to about 70 businesses which are forgivable after a five year period.

Another initiative, with a different approach than loans, was the Gifts of Hope program, made in collaboration with Greater Bemidji, Visit Bemidji, the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce and the United Way of Bemidji Area. The campaign made $40 gift cards for local businesses available to the public at a cost of $20, with the program covering the rest. The program also provided gift cards to local restaurants that were distributed by the United Way. The program sold more than $400,000 in gift cards to over 100 local businesses.

"This community came together to support small businesses," Hengel said. "While we're not out of the woods now, I think we learned that this community supports its hometown, homegrown businesses. I'm thankful to the city, county, and our Bemidji Alliance partners. I'm also thankful to private donors, people who stepped up to just try and help."

As Greater Bemidji created the emergency fund, the city responded by using $250,000 from its revolving loan fund to create a special loan program for businesses. The revolving loan fund is made up of leftover money the city receives in state or federal grants.

Once created, the city offered loans of up to $25,000 with 1% interest and 66 months of amortization. According to city officials, three businesses applied and received $25,000 each.

"I think it was important for businesses to know that it was there if they needed it and for those companies that did access it, it did provide them some stop gap financing to keep their lights on and bills paid," said City Manager Nate Mathews. "The $25,000 amount isn't a huge amount of money, but we wanted to spread out our fund as best we could. I'm glad the council recognized we could help in some way."

While speaking to the Pioneer, Mathews also praised the efforts of local organizations.

"The work the Chamber, Greater Bemidji, the Downtown Alliance and the United Way did were great, positive collaborative efforts that provided a variety of options to generate support for businesses," Mathews said. "When the pandemic showed what damage it can do, it required everybody to put their heads together to figure out what they can do with their organizations and it was a really good response."

"We may have weathered a little bit of a storm here, but this isn't going away," Hengel said. "I think in six months we'll have the question, when the stimulus money is gone, when the programs we've created have gone away, 'where will our businesses sit?' Our board and I think DEED as well will be watching carefully and stay in contact with businesses on how they're doing as recovery occurs."