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Small rural businesses fight for bailout aid

April Simpson, Stateline.org on

Published in Business News

Travis Hogman describes himself as a "small fish" who competes with "just about everybody."

The owner of The Lumberyard in rural, far southwestern Wyoming, squares off with regional rivals like BMC West and heavyweights like Amazon, Lowe's and Home Depot.

"I fight the small-town mentality all the time," Hogman said. "We're always fighting every day for every penny that we get."

Over the past several months, small rural business owners like Hogman have been fighting another battle: getting their share of federal coronavirus aid.

The $2 trillion CARES Act Congress approved in late March funded several Small Business Administration programs. The Paycheck Protection Program distributed more than $349 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses that retain their employees. It was replenished with another $310 billion. The Economic Injury Disaster Loan program provides small businesses up to $10,000 in loan advances that don't have to be repaid.

But critics say many rural entrepreneurs have been left out. They say unclear federal guidance has deterred many rural business owners from applying for help, and that many of them lack the banking relationships necessary to tap the largest pot of federal money: the Paycheck Protection Program.

 

"The failure of the Paycheck Protection Program to reach rural businesses is the direct result of decades of bank disinvestment from rural communities across the country," Ines Polonius, CEO of Communities Unlimited, Inc., an Arkansas-based lender that serves small businesses in seven states, told members of a U.S. House subcommittee on small business last month.

Responding to the criticism, the Small Business Administration and Treasury Department late last week announced they would set aside $10 billion in funding for the Paycheck Protection Program to be lent exclusively to Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), which lend to rural, minority and underserved groups.

It's a step in the right direction, but not all CDFIs are participating in the paycheck program, said Vandell Hampton Jr., president and CEO of True Access Capital, which isn't participating.

Smaller lenders don't have the capital to lend and wait to be reimbursed, nor do they have the capacity to quickly process loan applications, Hampton said. Instead, grant money to support such lenders, urban or rural, would have been more effective, he said.

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