Small businesses are the lifeblood of Eagle County and for nearly a year now, COVID-19 has steadily drained it away.
The global pandemic struck at the height of March business and then siphoned off revenues as summer turned to fall. Vail and Beaver Creek were able to open for the 2020-21 season, but in scaled back form with social distancing protocols in place across all aspects of the resorts.
Taken all together, the past year has been a death-by-a-thousand cuts scenario for local businesses. That drew the attention of officials from Eagle County and their anxiety turned to action. In mid-December, the Eagle County Board of Commissioners launched a bridge grant program to provide cash to businesses struggling to weather COVID-19 impacts.
“This program isn’t going to make people whole, but hopefully it will keep our businesses staggering along until we get to a solution,” said Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney on the day the board approved the measure. A little more than one month later, 149 local businesses would agree.
“It’s a challenging time for everyone and business owners have their own challenges,” said Ryan Thompson of 10th Mountain Whiskey and Spirits Company. “Any help we can have right now, we will take.”
Nimble and simple
Eagle County’s bridge grant goal is to have local businesses still standing when COVID-19 fades away. That meant a grant program needed to be nimble and simple. According to Erin McCuskey of the Northwest Colorado Small Business Development Center, the county’s program hit those standards.
“We have worked with a number of businesses that have not been able to receive any of the other COVID funding that was available,” she said. As a result, those operations were skeptical about receiving county dollars but ecstatic when they did.
“I have no doubt this program has helped keep some businesses open,” McCuskey said. “I am very impressed with how progressive the county has been to make sure this program is inclusive and available to all residents.”
In particular, McCuskey noted the application materials are provided in both English and Spanish which meant several Latino-owned businesses participated in the program
McCuskey was also impressed with the program funding. “Many counties have some type of funding in place but I would say that Eagle County is the most generous, just in terms of the pot of money the county commissioners decided to set aside.”
The commissioners allocated $3 million for the program with individual awards of up to $15,000. According to Justin Patrick, communications manager for Eagle County, as of this week the bridge grant program has provided a total of $2,075,922 to local businesses.
Every dollar helps
Brian Nolan of Blue Moose Pizza in Vail and Beaver Creek has operated his businesses for 25 years. He said grant dollars are one of the reasons he can plan on being in business for year 26.
Along with the county bridge grant, Nolan has received assistance from Colorado Restaurant Association programs, Holy Cross Energy and the town of Vail. His landlords have helped out as well and he used the available funds to shore up his general operations. Most importantly, Nolan said grant money helped him pay employees.
“Each part and parcel is helping. Each piece helped us to look further out into the future,” he said.
Nolan said his business is still climbing out from the impact of last March. He had placed his largest food delivery order of the year for the Friday preceding the Saturday shutdown.
“We are still looking to fill that loss back in,” he said. “Our losses have been dramatic and traumatic.”
Nolan has continued to provide employment for around 80 people, between full-time and part-time positions, because of grant dollars. He is also grateful for efforts to boost business, such as the town of Vail’s programs to provide tents and heaters for outdoor seating. Most of all, he is thankful for loyal customers.
“I have a ton of friends in the restaurant business from around the country and a lot of them aren’t breathing and sleeping easily,” Nolan said.
Trickle down impact
Like Nolan, Thompson said his county bridge grant helped 10th Mountain Whiskey pay employees.
“In turn, they used it for their necessities around the valley. The money just trickled down through the local economy,” Thompson said. “Everyone who is working around town is pretty grateful to have a job through all of this.”
Thompson echoed Nolan’s assessment of how difficult it’s been to bounce back from the March shutdown. “When Vail Village was a ghost town, we felt it the most. It was a scary time for everyone.”
Nationwide, retail liquor sales have held strong through the pandemic, but that’s only one part of 10th Mountain Whiskey’s business. The company also supplies bars and restaurants — businesses who have struggled mightily through the pandemic.
“Kudos to Eagle County for making this grant program happen and for streamlining the process. They did everything possible and helped out a lot of businesses. Everyone has been extremely grateful for it,” Thompson said.
Today, Thompson said 10th Mountain Whiskey is forward-focused. “We are planning accordingly for both the good and the bad to happen and for the unexpected to happen,” he said. “We are cautiously optimistic that the end of COVID is in our future.”
Kat Konner’s business in downtown Eagle is the epitome of a small operation. Katch of the Day wine bar is a one-woman show.
“I opened this business in September of 2019 and we got off to a great start and going into February and March 2020, I was getting ready to hire someone. Then we had to close,” she said.
Katch of the Day remained closed for two months. To get by, Konner sold bottles of wine and cheese plates online and then, last summer, she opened an outdoor patio space.
“We did pretty well considering we were at 50% of capacity,” she said. “And then in the fall, we went down to 25%.”
Konner responded to the reduced capacity by removing all the tables and chairs from her business and doing holiday sales and gift baskets. “My rent is reasonable, so I coasted through,” she said.
During the few pre Covid-19 months when she operated her business, Konner learned that people really wanted her to offer more food options. She had saved up some capital and set up a line of credit to make that move.
“All of the income that we lost from being closed and from being restricted, that was what we were going to use to grow the business,” she said. “I was using my line of credit to pay the rent and utilities and whatever other bills I had.”
The funding from the county bridge grant means Konner can proceed with her expansion plans. She wants to hire a chef and a bartender and put together a small bites menu to accompany her wine selection.
“By March we should be a different business,” she said.
“I think it is super exciting the county stepped up and put the grant pool together,” Konner offered. “I know businesses lost a year with COVID and that was a huge setback for lots of people. Along with using the grants to try to stay open, this is a huge opportunity for businesses to expand. I admire the people who are using the money for ambition … to change things and to evolve.”
All good things
As popular as it has been, the county’s bridge grant program is nearing its end. With COVID-19 vaccine now available, the world sits on the cusp of the pandemic’s conclusion and, hopefully, a return to normal.
“The deadline for businesses to initiate any new applications is midnight on Saturday, Jan. 23,” Patrick said. “All application materials for ongoing applications are due by Jan. 31.”
Time may be short, but its not too late to get an application in for a bridge grant, McCuskey stressed.
“You could start an application on Saturday morning and still get it done in time. It is meant to be user friendly,” she said. “The feedback we get from a lot of people is ‘I wish is would have reached out earlier.’”
Thompson agreed. “I would tell people to stop mulling it. Take 30 minutes and fill out the application. It is a simple, straightforward process.”
At the end of the day, the county hopes a grant will save a business. At the very least, it can save a business owner some peace of mind.
“I don’t want to say things are rosy for anybody, but I think there is great assistance available out there,” said McCuskey. “Business are feeling optimistic that they will be able to ride out this pandemic.”