WEST WARWICK — Lt. Gov. Dan McKee stopped by Arctic Village last week to pay visits to some of the local small businesses and nonprofits that have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Joined by Mark Knott, West Warwick's acting town manager, Rep. Tom Noret, of Dist. 25, and members of the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, McKee’s mission was to spread the word about the funds available to them through the Restore RI Grant Program.
“We just want to make people aware that this money is available,” McKee said, standing Monday afternoon outside of Millonzi’s Fine Catering. “There’s nothing better than getting some money in the pockets of the small businesses, and then letting them figure out how to use those dollars to keep themselves alive.”
At the end of October, McKee said, there was some $30 million still available of the $50 million that was allocated when Rhode Island Commerce launched the program over the summer. And those funds need to be disbursed before the federal relief that's funding the grants expires at the end of next month.
“You either use that money, or you lose that money,” he said.
McKee has been conducting regular tours of Rhode Island’s cities and towns since he took office in 2015. But this time around, as businesses statewide are forced to close or make significant changes because of the pandemic, his visits have taken on new urgency.
“We’re in every community trying to get money into the hands of small businesses,” McKee said. “We’re finding that, by visiting a handful of businesses on the same day, we’re getting a sense of who knows what, and that’s why we’re here.”
McKee said he's noticed that a lot of eligible business owners are unaware that the funding is available.
“Most people are buried in their business, and they haven’t really had the outreach that they need,” said McKee, who himself is a small business owner.
Judi Nietupski, for one, said she hadn’t realized previously that she's eligible for funding through Restore RI.
“I knew nothing about it,” said Nietupski, who owns Judi T. Dance Studio alongside her daughters. “Now that we know about it, we’ll do what we have to do to apply for the funds.”
Nietupski, who founded her businesses in 1976, has been teaching dance from her studio in Arctic for some three decades, and last year opened a second studio in Coventry. She’s been able to keep both of her locations open for the last several months, but things haven’t been easy.
“We can only have 15 people in here at a time,” she said, her dance studio visible through the decorated window behind her. “No recitals, no shows, no nothing.”
The fundraisers that Nietupski typically holds have also had to be canceled this year, she added.
“All that’s gone,” she said. “But at least we’re still open. A lot of my friends who have dance studios have closed.”
In addition to Millonzi’s and Judi T., the lieutenant governor made stops Monday at Matos Bakery, The Arctic Playhouse and JC’s Butcher Shop. As he met with the business owners, McKee spoke about his hope to make things easier for those who are struggling through the pandemic.
Along with the Rhode Island Small Business Coalition, McKee has advocated for at least 10 percent of the $1.25 billion in CARES Act funds the state received earlier this year to be earmarked for small business grants.
With $50 million initially allocated for Restore RI, McKee is now calling for another $75 million to be added to the pot. He also has requested that the maximum grant amount be increased to $50,000 — it doubled last month to $30,000 — and that all businesses be made eligible.
“There are businesses that still are not included,” McKee said, noting that nonprofit organizations and child care centers only recently became eligible to apply.
“Right now your dentists, your eye doctors, your medical offices that are really running businesses are not eligible to get these grants to help them pay the rent, pay their electric bills,” he continued. “There’s a long way to go here, and a very short time to get there.”
Small businesses must have experienced a revenue loss of at least 30 percent due to COVID-19 to be eligible for the Restore RI grants,
For Noret, joining the stroll Monday was about showing support for the local businesses that “are in dire straits” and in need of some funding assistance.
“I think it’s so important that we do continue to get this money out, rather than hold onto it,” Noret said. “Businesses are closing every day, and if we can get this money to them faster, maybe we can get them to hold on just long enough to get through this so they can continue to do what they signed up to do — to serve the community and to feed their families.”
Knott said he hopes that each of those businesses visited Monday takes advantage of the millions of dollars that’s up for grabs.
“Hopefully it’ll be much broader than the businesses we’re visiting today,” he added. “Between [The Arctic Village Association] and a few other groups, hopefully we can get the word out so some more businesses can take advantage.”
More information is available at commerceri.com.