Life, Hope and Gary Gatman | News Sun
CROMWELL – Mike Hatfield called it “Gary’s money.”
Without the money from the COVID relief grant orchestrated by the Noble County Economic Development Corp., which was disbursed last fall, Hatfield said his small business probably wouldn’t have survived the pandemic.
On June 14, Noble County commissioners approved a second round of small business grants for Noble County businesses totaling $200,000 under a program from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs.
The Noble County Economic Development Corp., under Executive Director Gary Gatman, was the local agency accepting applications. Commissioners voted to have Region III-A administer the grants.
Earlier that year, EDC distributed about $90,000 to 40 small businesses in the county as part of another congressional-funded relief program.
The fall distribution saw 24 Noble County small businesses receive grants ranging from $2,500 to a maximum of $10,000. Grants were awarded to businesses in Albion, Avilla, Cromwell, City of Rome, Ligonier, Wawaka and Kendallville.
The goal? According to Gatman, it was painfully simple and painfully important.
“It was to keep our small businesses vibrant,” he said this week. “They were in danger. Most of them had to close. We didn’t want to lose any of them.”
Gatman said 70% of businesses in Noble County have 10 or fewer employees. The effect on the local economy – and citizens – of a large-scale bankruptcy of a small business could not be ignored.
The grant program worked.
Of the 24 small businesses that received grants, only one or possibly two, according to EDC’s tally, are no longer operating.
Hatfield’s Freedom Wire, a Cromwell business started in 2002 out of Hatfield’s home in Albion, has 10 full-time employees who make wire harnesses. Like most small businesses, her business suffered a lot when the coronavirus hit in 2020.
“We were closed for six or eight weeks,” Hatfield said. “The bills kept going up.”
Hatfield used payroll protection offers from the federal government as well as a $10,000 grant administered by EDC in the fall of 2021 to keep its employees paid, even when the store was closed. Keeping these employees on the payroll ensured employees did not have to seek work elsewhere, ensuring that Hatfield would still have a workforce when pandemic restrictions were finally lifted.
“It became a talent retention thing for him,” Gatman said.
“If it wasn’t for these (grants), I wouldn’t have made it,” Hatfield said this week.
With his labor – his top priority – taken care of, he was able to find other funds to keep the lights on and the building heated. Still, it was a struggle.
Freedom Wire saw sales drop 50% in 2020.
Hatfield wasn’t the only one feeling the heavy financial toll of a stalled economy.
Andy Gaerte of ABC Embroidery of Albion said his small business saw sales drop 33% in 2020.
And like Freedom Wire, a $10,000 grant from EDC Aid makes ends meet.
“It was useful money at the time,” Gaerte said. “EDC was great. They did a lot of leg work.
Grants awarded were to be used for day-to-day operating expenses and for investments to improve sustainability, such as new technologies and management costs.
Gaerte used part of the $10,000 his company received to update its technology.
So does Carla Lowe of Carla’s 5 Bucks Antiques & Such, an antique store on Main Street in Kendallville.
Lowe has purchased new software that will make it easier for him to track and organize sales for the eight salespeople who rent space in his store. It will also allow these vendors to have up-to-date inventory records including which items are selling well so they can be restocked.
She used a notebook to write down sales information.
“Now everything is done electronically,” Lowe said. “It makes it easier for everyone.”
Unlike Freedom Wire and ABC Embroidery, Lowe had just started her business in December 2019.
“I don’t have a pre-pandemic story,” she said.
After being open for only three months, Lowe’s had to close for 2.5 months when the coronavirus closed most businesses in 2020.
“It was like a ghost town,” Lowe said of downtown Kendallville. “The whole world has changed.”
This brought his fledgling business to the brink.
“I’m sure I’ve felt that at times – should I shut down?” she says. “It was scary.”
No one had time to prepare.
“All pending orders just fell,” Gaerte said. “Like someone flipped a switch.”
Keeping the power switch and heater on has become a challenge for many small businesses. When Lowe found out about EDC’s grants, she decided to go for it. She received $2,500, the lowest of 24 grants offered, but for her it was enough to keep the tax collector at bay.
“I was like, ‘This is fantastic,'” Lowe said. “It helped a lot. I live from my sales. When there are not many sales, there is not much life.
Small businesses are key to measuring the quality of life in small communities.
Gatman said he moved to Albion because restaurants, pubs, exercise businesses and other attractions were within easy walking distance. The loss of these small businesses would make towns less attractive and could hamper efforts to grow housing and industry.
“There’s a quality of life that we love about it,” Gatman said. “Living in Albion would become a little less special.”
Gatman praised the community for how they helped local businesses. Many people have helped local restaurants through the worst of the pandemic by patronizing them with take-out orders. In Kendallville, a fundraiser to maintain the Strand Theater involved selling company popcorn. People lined up around the block to get some of that popcorn, Gatman said.
“People were going out of their way to do more,” Gatman said. “When it took to pull himself together, he did.”
Even with most restrictions lifted, many small businesses are still struggling to catch up on what has been lost. But at least they’re still here to fight.
Gatman said the grant money “probably didn’t allow you to break even. It just brought the loss down to a manageable level.
Today, small businesses trying to get back on their feet are struggling with supply chain issues and inflation.
Hatfield said that before the pandemic, his business operated on a 60-90 day fulfillment cycle. Materials purchased today would see a return of income during this period. Now this period has increased to 120-180 days, which means that his earnings are delayed much longer.
Copper prices alone in his industry are up 67%, he said.
Difficult to make up for lost time when the prices of everything have exploded.
“We’re still not where we were before 2020,” Hatfield said. “It’s coming back.”
“Prices don’t seem to be coming down,” Gaerte said. “The policies don’t seem to be aligning for that to happen.”