HAZARD, Ky. — Businesses and nonprofits in rural and mountainous areas of Eastern Kentucky are among the hardest hit by the impacts of COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing.
A new fund set up in late March to help these Appalachian organizations has received a big boost with a $500,000 contribution from the James Graham Brown Foundation. This brings the Regional Response & Recovery Fund, established by the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, Appalachian Impact Fund (AIF) and other partners, to more than three quarters of a million dollars.
“While the effects of this pandemic transcend all boundaries, the geographic areas with historic inequities are where the impact is hitting even harder and where the recovery will be even longer. We are committed to helping the most vulnerable communities weather this health and economic crisis,” said Mason Rummel, president and CEO of the James Graham Brown Foundation.
A portion of the fund will help stabilize nonprofits in the region which have lost earned revenue and donor events at a time when their response efforts are ramping up. A portion of the recovery fund, called the Southeast Kentucky Downtown Business Stimulus Fund, will focus resources specifically on helping businesses with grants and no-interest loans.
“There has been so much recent momentum with our Main Street-style businesses across Appalachia, where restaurants, the arts, and local retail were spurring a new economy,” said Lora Smith, fund manager with AIF, which is administering the downtown-focused program with partners. “These are the businesses that make our cities unique and draw people in. They’re our heartbeat and we want to stabilize them now and position them for growth when things return.”
Locally owned downtown businesses in southeastern Kentucky can apply for mini-grants of $3,000 or no-interest loans. Smith said more than 230 businesses have applied thus far. Eligible businesses include restaurants or “experience retail” that includes the arts, tourism, accommodations and entertainment.
Federal disaster relief may not be accessible or enough
Several partners joined with AIF to develop the downtown-focused program, when it became clear that federal aid programs would likely not be sufficient or timely enough for Appalachian businesses. These partners include Invest 606, a nonprofit focused on providing resources to entrepreneurs, and the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky (CEDIK), part of the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.
“Many of these businesses are run by self-employed folks who really can’t access much of the funding provided by the new federal aid programs,” said Dr. Geoff Marietta, founder of Invest 606. “We are finding out that the federal programs provide only a drop in the bucket for what’s needed to get our businesses through this crisis. We’ve made great strides in strengthening and diversifying the economy over the last few years, and this new locally driven fund will ensure that momentum is not lost.”
“So many of our rural communities in Kentucky were celebrating positive momentum in recent years as they transition to diverse economies that capitalize on local assets. We simply cannot allow this energy to be permanently disrupted. This stimulus fund is the initial step to support our business community and our rural places, but it will not be our last. I feel confident that the innovation and tenacity in the region will propel us above and beyond,” said Dr. Alison Davis, executive director of CEDIK.
Other key funding partners in the Regional Response & Recovery Fund include the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER Grant program and the Educational Foundation of America, whose funding is specifically supporting artists and arts-oriented businesses.