BOSTON (State House News Service) – Amelia Goncalves came to the United States from Angola in 1996, and by the early part of the next decade she and her family had opened a restaurant in Brockton serving the types of West African dishes she had grown up on.
Like any restaurant, Luanda Restaurant and Lounge has gone through ups and downs with the economy over the years. But the COVID-19 pandemic that arrived in early 2020 really put a strain on the business.
When Gov. Charlie Baker's administration put together a $668 million small grant program for small businesses in late 2020, the Goncalves family applied and received $75,000, the maximum grant available.
"It helped us pay a lot of bills and keep us in business," Goncalves said Wednesday as she played host to Baker and other state leaders to announce the availability of a new round of funding, albeit a smaller sum, for small businesses still hurting from the pandemic.
Baker traveled to Brockton on Wednesday to re-launch a small grant program for small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, visiting the Golcalves's West African restaurant to mark the opening of the application window that will end with $75 million going to support businesses like Luanda Restaurant and Lounge.
The program is being funded with money from the American Rescue Plan Act and last year's state budget surplus and is the successor to a $668 million small business relief fund Baker set up in late 2020, which also relied heavily on federal funds. The Legislature recapitalized the program as part of the $4 billion ARPA relief bill passed late last year.
"This program has proven to be a lifesaver and game changer for so many businesses here in the Commonwealth," Baker said.
The ARPA-surplus bill made $50 million in grants available to small business impacted by COVID-19, with priority given to businesses that serve socially and economic disadvantaged communities and those owned and operated by minorities, women, veterans, members of the LGBTQ community and those with disabilities.
The other $25 million in grants are being reserved for businesses that did not previously qualify for relief funding under the initial program. The application period opened at noon on Wednesday, and businesses will have five weeks to apply for grants of up to $75,000 that can be used on everything from payroll, mortgages and rent to COVID-19 safety supplies or outdoor dining upgrades.
Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation President Larry Andrews, who will administer the grants, said his goal is to start awarding money by the end of April or early May. Andrews said the timing of the awards will depend, in part, on the volume of applications received, and he is expecting the program to be oversubscribed.
"To the small business owners who may be watching this right now, your resiliency and optimism is contagious and really inspiring. We thank you and want to support you further," Andrews said.
Jaysen Goncalves, Amelia's son, said the grant his family received last year helped the restaurant build an outdoor dining area, which they had always wanted, and to stay afloat when other businesses were failing. But restaurants are still dealing with supply chains issues, inflation and higher prices for ingredients.
"It was very helpful during a very tumultuous time. But the effects of the pandemic are still being felt, especially for a lot of small businesses like ours," Jaysen Goncalves said.
Jon Hurst, president of the Massachusetts Retailers Association of Massachusetts, has been vocal in support for state and local government to direct more federal dollars to support small businesses, but he said the size of this newest grant program barely scratches the surface of need.
"You have to wonder what local and state government are waiting for to spend more of their ARPA funds," Hurst said. "Are they waiting for more dark storefronts? Are they waiting for COVID to be totally in the rearview mirror so they can spend it on unrelated purposes?"
The state still has about $2.3 billion in uncommitted ARPA funds, and Democratic leaders have yet to lay out a timetable for when they might look to spend that money. Cities and towns also received their own pots of money from the federal relief bill.
"Those who believe the small business failures are over don't understand that you can't survive indefinitely with both lower sales and far higher costs," Hurst said.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said "it's on us" to support local businesses by shopping and dining a locally owned establishments.
"Make a plan to go out with friends and family and really support the small businesses that make up the fabric of our commonwealth," Polito said.
Baker lamented that the event took place in the morning, and not in the evening when he might have ordered food to take out. After promising to be back with his wife and friends to dine, Jaysen Goncalves told him that delivery to the State House was an option.
"Do you really deliver to the State House?" Baker asked. "Awesome. I'm all over that."
By Matt Murphy, State House News Service