MONTPELIER — Businesses, farms and nonprofits that suffered financial losses following the emergency closure of the Champlain Bridge will be able to apply for low- or no-interest loans from a pot of $800,000 in funds earmarked by the Legislature this week.
The loan money is contained in a larger, $8.6-million “Jobs Bill (S.288)” passed by the Senate late last week and expected to be OK’d by the House and governor this week. The Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC) will be in charge of disbursing the loans to area farms, businesses and nonprofits that took a financial hit when the states of New York and Vermont closed the Champlain Bridge last Oct. 16. That closure sent hundreds of commuters through long detours and ferry rides that, in many cases, bypassed local stores and restaurants and prompted some Addison County businesses to defray some of the extra transportation costs incurred by their New York state employees.
Long-term ferry operations have been set up near the old Champlain Bridge site, which will host a new span in 2011. But there was a chunk of almost four months in which businesses in Bridport, Addison and Crown Point, N.Y. saw their sales plummet and some local farmers found themselves separated from crops on the New York side of the bridge.
To partially remedy those hardships, terms of S.288 call for:
• A deadline of Oct. 31 for parties to apply for loans, which can be as low as no-interest. Eligible parties must have incurred economic losses as a direct result of the closure of the bridge and may apply to ACEDC for loans to assist with maintaining payroll, ordering inventory and covering operational expenses — including increased expenses resulting from increased travel costs.
• The ACEDC to make the loans of $1,000 to $25,000.
• Any unexpended funds, as of Nov. 1, to be transferred to the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) to apply to the “entrepreneurs’ seed capital fund” that helps businesses with start-up costs.
• The ACEDC to use up to 0.5 percent of each loan to cover administrative costs.
The Senate-passed aid package ended what Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, called a “roller-coaster ride” for legislation aimed at helping businesses affected by the interruption of traffic over Lake Champlain this past fall and early winter.
Lawmakers had originally hoped to offer affected businesses a total of $1 million in grants and loans. That got pared back to $500,000 ($150,000 of which was to be grants) in the House, which passed the measure by a 138-0 tally, according to Lanpher.
But the House’s proposal failed to win support in the Senate due to the perceived precedent of the state delivering outright grant relief for a bridge closure.
“We had some discussions, and since (the Senate) was not going to be comfortable with $150,000 in grants, they agreed to go back to the $800,000 — which was the original Senate number — for low- and no-interest loans,” Lanpher said.
Sen. Claire Ayer. D-Weybridge, said she would have preferred that at least a portion of the $800,000 in aid had been in the form of grants. There are a few businesses for which loans will not provide adequate relief, according to Ayer, who pledged to work through other state government channels to find help. But in the end, Ayer said, there just weren’t enough votes among the 30-member Senate to make grants part of the aid offerings.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t get grants, but there was no support — we may have had six or eight sympathy votes,” Ayer said.
Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Orleans, agreed. The chairman of the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee acknowledged that while the Champlain Bridge closure presented a bona fine crisis, it’s negative impacts were not entirely unlike those experienced by other communities following similar span failures — such when the Richmond Bridge was closed.
“We were fearful that if we set a precedent of distributing grants in this circumstance, we would be starting a new program that would require grants in other situations,” Illuzzi said. The state would be hard-pressed to start a new grant program in light of its current financial problems, according to Illuzzi.
Illuzzi noted that Porter Medical Center is separately seeking $40,000 in aid, through the appropriations bill, to help defray the extra expenses it incurred when the bridge closed. Porter Hospital and Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center paid out a combined total of $40,600 in per diem to cover extra transportation costs for their New York workers.
Robin Scheu, executive director of the ACEDC, said she, too, is disappointed there will be no grants for affected businesses. Still, she is pleased her office will now be able to offer some loans.
“I am glad we have at least something to offer, even if it is six months (after the bridge closure),” Scheu said.
Dana Franklin, co-owner of the West Addison General Store (WAGS), said he will probably apply for a loan. WAGS, located in close proximity to the bridge, was hit hard by its closure.
Franklin said he thinks loans are a better idea than grants.
“The thing I like about loans is that it will help us out, but the money (once repaid) will be put back in to help other Vermonters.”
Qualifying businesses interested in obtaining a loan should contact Sarah Kearns at the ACEDC at 388-7953, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Flowers is at email@example.com.