Nearly 98 percent of the 394 local small businesses awarded funding remained in operation at the end of December, with 3,341 jobs retained or recovered
(Asheville, N.C.): It’s been nearly a year since North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper declared a State of Emergency in response to the COVID-19 public health crisis. Within days, the worldwide pandemic led to an economic disaster no one could have predicted, threatening the very existence of Asheville’s beloved, independently owned small businesses.
But by the end of June, $5 million in emergency grants had been awarded by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority through the Buncombe Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund to help preserve and safely reopen nearly 400 local small businesses and protect thousands of jobs for local residents. A survey of grant recipients six months later revealed remarkable results in meeting those objectives: 98 percent of the 394 local small businesses awarded grants remained in operation, with 3,341 jobs retained or recovered.
In addition to supporting payroll and rent, grants enabled businesses to purchase inventory, supplies and personal protective equipment, or to modify their operations. The infusion of cash also provided some recipients with the opportunity to focus on longer-term needs and priorities.
“Social restrictions caused major setbacks in how we have historically done business,” said Dewanna Little, executive director of the YMI Cultural Center. “However, it has also given us the opportunity to reimagine how we operate…This year came with its challenges, but we have made it to the end with a lot of lessons learned and in a better position.”
The TDA Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund “allowed us to hire back a tasting room manager and staff much faster than we would have been able to otherwise…allowing our company’s leadership to focus on other strategic priorities to increase our company’s resilience and financial sustainability,” said Cristina Hall Ackley, co-founder and president of Ginger’s Revenge.
Beyond the ability to pay expenses, the funding often had a positive effect on morale, lifting spirits and illustrating Asheville as a resilient, caring community working together through difficult times, said some grantees.
“These were more than financial lifelines. Not to underestimate the importance of the funds themselves, but they reminded us that we had something to offer and our city is better because all of us are part of it,” said Karen Ramshaw, representing The Orange Peel.
With grants that ranged in amount from $2,000 to $30,000, recipients were businesses that provide a visitor experience, including restaurants, bars, bakeries, and cafes; retail establishments; arts and entertainment businesses; tours and attractions; outdoor recreation, spas, and wellness businesses; wedding and event businesses and venues; theaters and museums; and breweries, wineries, cideries, and distilleries. Lodging facilities, in accordance with the legislation, were ineligible to apply.
“We are grateful for the monumental efforts of our local delegation who supported the one-time legislation allowing Buncombe County TDA to create this fund,” said Victoria Isley, president and CEO of Explore Asheville, the marketing arm of the BCTDA. “This extraordinary accomplishment had remarkable results for local residents and the small businesses that make Asheville and Buncombe County such a great place to live, work, and visit. Our focus to support economic vitality for the entire community will continue in the coming months, working to deliver balanced recovery and sustainable growth, encourage safe and responsible travel, engage and invite more diverse audiences, and promote and support our community’s creative spirit.”
A full 100 percent of the grantees participated in the six-month survey conducted by Mountain BizWorks, the nonprofit that administered the fund under contract with the Buncombe County TDA. Findings are outlined in a progress report, highlights of which follow along with a sampling of comments from fund recipients.
Buncombe County Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund: Highlights of Six-Month Progress Report
- Recipients of the Buncombe County TDA grants reported having 4,332 FTE (full-time equivalent) employees as of March 10, 2020. By the time they applied for grant relief in May 2020, the number of FTEs had decreased 69 percent to 1,360 – a loss of 2,972 FTE jobs. As of December 31, recipients reported a current total of 3,341 FTE jobs.
- Of the 394 businesses funded, 97.5% have been able to remain in operation as of December 31, with only 10 that had permanently closed – and even some of those reported plans to reopen in new spaces, or new forms, in the months to come.
- While grant recipients reported a variety of ways they spent the funds, the majority used them for rent and payroll. Some reported hiring new positions or increasing wages.
- Many were able to pivot their operations; for example, retailers increased their online presence. Some restaurants renovated to allow for outdoor, safer, and socially-distant dining, or switched operations to serve food via take-out or delivery. Other common uses included marketing, training, and purchasing PPE (personal protective equipment).
- Although the fund succeeded in meeting its objective of helping local small businesses safely reopen, preserving jobs for local people, grant recipients still faced challenges according to the December survey. Recipients cited the need for marketing assistance from the Buncombe County TDA to increase consumer demand and responsibly entice new customers as pandemic safety precautions allow. Many expressed concern that the seasonal increase in visitors may not materialize due to economic and pandemic complications, resulting in business closures.
Buncombe County Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund: Comments from Grantees
Among the dozens of comments made by grantees completing the survey (or sent directly to the Buncombe County TDA or Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau):
- “Many days during the pandemic we operated with a deficit, your funds helped us stay open and continue to employ our hardworking staff.” – Sarah Coogan, The WALK (West Asheville Lounge & Kitchen)
- “We completely exhausted our grant on payroll, utilities, PPE needs and rent…this freed up funds to build a small portable outdoor stage that we desperately needed and has brought in the income we are using to cover some bills at this time. This has really been a life saver.” – Amy Marshall, The Odditorium
- “Our retail front was closed for 200 days and we were only able to reopen because of the inventory we bought with the grant funds, so we are so incredibly grateful – thank you!” – Claire Watson, Moonlight Makers
- “I was fortunate to receive a totally unexpected $22k grant from you last year to help us pivot through the Pandemic. I want to let you know that we used that money toward building the ‘Take-Out Huts’ that now operate at both of our locations in Asheville…Please know that we are extremely grateful for the help that you provided us (seemingly out of nowhere when we were in extreme times of stress!). It really means a lot to us and we humbly thank you for your help.” – Rich Cundiff, Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack.
- “We were able to add on more outdoor dining with some of the grant money… [making] sure we had the proper safety modifications in place and creating an inviting outdoor space for dining until we were able to install air purification system indoors and reopen the dining room to customers.” – Jeff Miller, Luella’s BBQ
- “… [We] would like to thank BCTDA from the bottom of our odd hearts for believing in us. You have helped carry us this far and for that we will be forever thankful. We promise to continue to do our best for Asheville and all that visit here. We believe there is a place for us in this city and we believe you think the same. We welcome you to our location when things return to normal and truly hope that time is near… We have plans for the future that we know our locals and tourists will love!” – Amy Marshall, The Odditorium
More on the Buncombe County Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund
- The Buncombe Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund was made possible by legislation giving the Buncombe County TDA the one-time authority to appropriate $5 million that had collected for tourism product development, but not yet awarded. This revenue comes from a portion of the lodging tax paid by overnight visitors to Buncombe County. The fund was signed into law on May 4, 2020.
- Of the total $5 million disbursed, 18 percent was awarded to minority-led businesses and 55 percent to women-led businesses. The vast majority of the grants – 356 in total – went to businesses with fewer than 25 employees. Breakdown of sectors funded:
- 124: Restaurants and bars
- 102: Tours, attractions, outdoor recreation, agri-tourism, arts, entertainment
- 84: Retail operations
- 24: Bakeries, cafes, dessert-makers
- 24: Wedding and event businesses
- 22: Breweries, cideries, wineries and distilleries
- 14: Spas and wellness businesses
- Unlike other pandemic relief efforts, these grants did not have to be paid back by already financially overburdened small business owners. Eligibility criteria set forth by the legislation included financial need, equitability, tourism impact, and plans for reopening in ways that would lead to a more resilient and sustainable local economy.
- Grant amounts ranged from $2,000 (micro-grant) to $30,000 (full grant). Businesses with multiple sites could receive $30,000 per location, up to a maximum of $50,000 total. See the full list of recipients and grant amounts >
- Fund recipients are required to complete a second survey after one year, from which a final report will be generated by Mountain BizWorks and presented to the BCDTA later this summer.
About the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority
Established by state law to administer the occupancy tax paid by overnight visitors according to the enabling legislation, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority is a public authority with a public purpose to enhance the economic vitality of Buncombe County. It is led by 11 local, appointed volunteers (two of whom are ex-officio members) who provide professional expertise to ensure the effective use of the tax to benefit our community and the people who live here.
Kathi M. Petersen, Director of Public Information