BEMIDJI -- Greater Bemidji Economic Development is developing an emergency fund to support small, locally owned businesses and on Tuesday, Beltrami County gave its support.

In a meeting via telephone, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners directed $250,000 to Greater Bemidji's new emergency fund. According to county documents, the fund will be used to support locally-owned businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The fund will partner with local banks through participation loans, or loan guarantees, where banks would access the fund to support extending additional working capital to affected businesses. Greater Bemidji is also investing $250,000, while also seeking $250,000 from the city and another $250,000 from the George W. Neilson Foundation.

To cover the cost, the county will use consolidated conservation funds of $125,000 and county development funds of $125,000. Eligible businesses must not be a franchise or chain business. However, there will be an exception for hotels and motels.

"For our small, locally-owned businesses, I'm nervous," said Greater Bemidji executive director Dave Hengel during the call. "The challenges we're facing are across the board. Just about everybody is having some major impact here."

The fund will work with banks submitting a request to Greater Bemidji for consideration for a proposed loan to an impacted business. The maximum for the loan is $50,000, but the expected average is about $30,000.

"While you would think a person could have a rainy day fund of three months, many of these local small businesses just don't," Hengel said. "The stories are heartbreaking for me. I had over 95 businesses last Wednesday call me, asking for some kind of support. I had a banker tell me that 'several businesses will not get through April.' Those are the businesses that concern me."

Beltrami County District 2 Commissioner Reed Olson chimed in on the topic saying, "I'm glad you're giving special attention to these small businesses. I think people are going to be dumping their personal savings they have into their businesses to stay afloat. So then we have people potentially losing their life savings and their homes. So, shoring up those businesses is going to be vital for the future health of our economy."

In his comments, District 5 Commissioner Jim Lucachick, noted Tuesday's action has to be the beginning of more county efforts going forward.

"This isn't even touching the tip of the iceberg, it's just the start," Lucachick said. "We need to step up a lot more to the table. We have a lot at stake here. We have a lot more involvement we need to make as a county board."

Olson agreed with Lucachick's statement and said, "I think taking this as a first step is prudent, and then we can look at what more we can do down the road. I think we all know this won't be done by the end of April, especially the economic pain."

The board approved supporting the emergency fund unanimously, as well as a local emergency declaration. With the latter, the declaration noted that all county meetings going forward will be held by phone or other electronic means.

Additionally, in cases where existing county policies and procedures may interfere with a response to state or federal directions, the county administrator, sheriff, emergency management director, public health director and other designated officials are authorized to suspend compliance. All county departments and staff have also been directed to now operate and support the response to the emergency.

County Administrator Kay Mack has now been authorized to enter into agreements and contracts to obtain materials, equipment and services for the emergency. Mack and County Board Chair Craig Gaasvig were also authorized to execute any necessary agreements, contracts and related documents.

Mack and the administration staff were also authorized to coordinate appropriate aid and resources from surrounding counties, cities, state and federal agencies.

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