BEMIDJI -- Dollars provided to Beltrami County through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act are going toward a number of efforts, including support for local businesses.

In total, the county was provided $5.8 million through the CARES package, and much of it was used to cover expenses the county incurred since the pandemic arrived.

"We had a team that set priorities and the very first priority was looking at any county expenditure that was eligible," said County Administrator Kay Mack. "That includes salaries, technology that allows people to work from home, significant protective equipment and remodeling for county buildings. That ate up a very significant portion of the $5.8 million."

The second priority for the county was providing funds to school districts to help with distance learning efforts and the third was creating a support program for businesses. That program is an initiative offering grants for small businesses to cover costs directly associated with the pandemic.

The administration of funds will be done by the Greater Bemidji Economic Development organization. Grants ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 can be applied for from Sept. 7-20.

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Mack said $100,000 of the CARES funding was dedicated directly to the grant program, while $547,000 went to 24 of the county's townships. While some of the dollars to the townships will be spent in those areas, though, Mack said much of it will also go into the program.

"Half of the funding the townships provide will be split between for-profit businesses and nonprofit businesses," Mack said. "What makes this significant for businesses is that there have been ample loan funds available, but loans mean paying back. So, businesses have really had to take a hard look at what they can afford to take out. The grant program isn't anything businesses will have to pay back, provided the funds qualify for COVID-related expenditures."

Information for the program can be found at www.greaterbemidji.com. Business owners interested can also go directly to Greater Bemidji's headquarters at the Mayflower Building, 102 First Street W, or call (218) 444-5757.

"The business community is extremely important to Beltrami County and the board," Mack said. "We do want to make sure our for-profit and nonprofit business communities can stay as viable as possible."

Coinciding with the new program is a new promotion from the Bemidji Downtown Alliance. The campaign, called Shop Small, Give Big, was created to support small, locally owned businesses in the city's downtown sector. The campaign will allow customers to visit participating downtown businesses this month and be entered into a drawing to win gift cards and other items at the end of the month, totaling $500 in value.

The most recent actions are the latest in many efforts that have taken place to protect local businesses. In the Greater Bemidji area, 36 businesses received financial support with loans ranging from $2,500 to $35,000 through a special fund by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Another emergency loan fund, created through a partnership of Greater Bemidji, Beltrami County and Paul Bunyan Communications, provided dollars to five local businesses. Thanks to an anonymous donation of $500,000, Greater Bemidji was also able to establish the Hometown Business Relief Fund, which provided money to about 70 businesses in loans that are forgivable over a five-year period.

The city of Bemidji took action, too, creating a program with $250,000 from the Revolving Loan Fund, which is made up of leftover money the city receives in state or federal grants. Three businesses applied to the program and received loans.

A local initiative not related to loans was the Gifts of Hope program. Made from a collaboration of Greater Bemidji, Visit Bemidji, the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce and the United Way of Bemidji Area, the program offered gift cards worth $40 to local businesses, at the price of $20, with the program covering the rest of the cost. The program also provided gift cards to local restaurants that were distributed by the United Way.

Many of the programs were created when executive orders were made by Gov. Tim Walz to shut down many types of businesses to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. As businesses had to close their doors, the local unemployment rate rose dramatically.

In March, the unemployment rate for Beltrami County was 4.6% and in April it went to 9.1%, the highest rate in the county since March 2011 when it reached 9.6%. Since then, the rate went down to 9% in May, then down to 7.7% in June and 6.6% in July.