A program built to help the smallest of Vermont businesses has received a $1 million boost and is taking applications.

The Micro Business Development Program has been around for years, said Tyler Jokinen, Project EMBRACE coordinator at BROC Community Action. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it paired businesses with five employees or less up with experts who could both advise them and connect them with sources of financial assistance.

“Project EMBRACE was a proposal that we came up with at the beginning of the pandemic to serve our clients better,” said Jokinen.

What the project does is award grants of between $2,500 and $5,000 to qualifying businesses. Among the criteria are, the business must have been established before March 1, affected by a COVID-19 related loss between March 1 and Nov. 1, and the recipient must be at or below 80% of the Vermont median household income level. Businesses can’t be engaged in cannabis related services, firearms sales, lobbying, be a franchise or chain or be a consultant with one client. They also may not have already been awarded a Vermont Emergency Economic Recovery Grant.

Jokinen said that while BROC is coordinating the program, the state’s other community action groups are working in tandem to take applications and pair recipients with advisers. To apply, one should contact their local community action group, or email him at TJokinen@broc.org.

He said that in addition to the $1 million in direct aid, the micro business program has taken on more advisers. Applicants can to speak to someone knowledgeable about their industry so they can make the best use of the funds they receive.

“We saw that in past history, unemployment had a direct correlation with the number of micro business participants, basically the higher the unemployment rate there was a 6.15 correlation factor between that and the number of participants we got,” Jokinen said.

The EMBRACE program launched quietly last week and already has 56 applications.

“It’s an amazing response rate,” he said, adding that the program will be promoted starting this week with the first round of funds awarded Thursday. The program will take applications on a rolling basis until expended.

The applications are quite varied, from tattoo parlors to hairstylists, to childcare providers. Some are using the funds to purchase COVID-19 related safety measures such as sinks, others are looking to pay bills. Many, he said, want to create websites and allow for online shopping while others are looking into digital marketing.

Sue Minter, executive director of Capstone Community Action in Barre, said she’s expecting a high demand for the program.

“Everyone is in a crisis and every dollar of support they can get is needed,” she said, adding that the Agency of Commerce and Community Development is referring those not eligible for its programs towards BROC and the micro business network.

“It’s great to have the opportunity to have federal support for the micro businesses that could not access previous support,” she said. “This program actually helps people out of poverty by creating businesses, and now this will work to sustain those businesses.”

keith.whitcomb

@rutlandherald.com

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