The Kanawha County Commission expects to start accepting applications soon for a new small-business assistance program. Commissioners approved the guidelines Thursday for what they’re calling All Kan, for all of Kanawha County.
The commission has set aside $500,000 in federal coronavirus relief funds for the program.
The program is an expansion of one the commission already offers businesses in the Upper Kanawha Valley. The commission started UKAN, the Upper Kanawha Valley Business Assistance Program, in January 2019. That program offers forgivable small-business loans of up to $10,000 to businesses with up to 25 employees in the Upper Kanawha Valley.
“We initially focused on the Upper Kanawha Valley because that’s the area of the county that’s been impacted the most by the decline of coal,” County Commissioner Ben Salango said.
“When we received American Rescue Plan funds, as well as the guidelines, we learned that we could do business assistance programs throughout the county, and that’s what we’re going to do. Basically, we intend to expand the UKAN program throughout Kanawha County, and rebrand it as the All Kan program.”
According to the guidelines, the All Kan program will offer grants of up to $25,000 to new and existing businesses with 25 or fewer employees. Strong preference will be given to businesses in unincorporated areas of the county, the guidelines say.
“Areas of the county like Sissonville, Cross Lanes, Tornado, Elkview and any other areas that are unincorporated will benefit from this program,” Salango said.
He said the UKAN program has helped several businesses start and has helped others stay open during the pandemic.
“Now, not every business has been successful, that’s simply a reality of the market,” he said. “But this is a way to turn the unemployed into entrepreneurs. That area of the county has been absolutely decimated from the decline of coal and then [the West Virginia University Institute of Technology] leaving Montgomery.
“It’s been very tough. So the idea was to do a pilot program in that area to generate jobs. And we have been able to start a number of businesses there and also expand existing businesses.”
A long-time family-owned Christian bookstore in Smithers is one business that has benefited from the UKAN program. The Christian Family Book Shoppe, in operation 45 years, was awarded a $10,000 grant and marketing assistance in December 2019. The business used the grant to rebrand itself as CFBS Gifts and More.
“We’ve rebranded into more of a gift store,” owner Grace Ann Nutter said. “We’ve added a ladies’ boutique. We’ve done a lot of clothing for ladies, some men, and we’re a Simply Southern preferred dealer. We just have a large variety, but we still carry church supplies and Christian gift items, and Bibles and Bible covers.”
The grant allowed the business to buy new merchandise to sell.
“We were able to take that money and purchase inventory to transition our inventory makeup,” Nutter said. She said the business bought its new merchandise in January 2020, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic started.
“That gave us merchandise to sell, and then the whole world shut down,” Nutter said. “But, thank the Lord, we did not have to shut down. We were considered essential. And that grant allowed us to have new merchandise and helped us with the rebranding. But it was during a very difficult time.”
The commission expects to begin accepting applications for the All Kan program by July 1. The applications will be posted on the commission’s website.
A committee made up mostly of business owners will review applications and make recommendations to the commission about which businesses to fund. Salango will be on the committee. Angela Gould, of Buzz Food Service, also has agreed to serve on the committee, Salango said.
Applications also will be vetted by an attorney and an accountant, to ensure American Rescue Plan guidelines are followed.
The county also offers recipients assistance learning how to market their business and filing business taxes.
“We look at the proposal, business plans,” Salango said. “If it’s an existing business, we look at their profit-and-loss statements. We look at the entire concept, what do they plan to do with the money? This is not just a handout. It has to be a good business plan. And they have to show that they are dedicated to making it work.”