As federal funds arrive, some Harrisonburg residents, businesses and agencies are getting a little relief

Like many restaurants, Lola’s Delicatessen downtown switched to carryout only in March amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Holly Marcus)

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor, with additional reporting by contributors Kyle Kirby and Graham Schiltz

Millions of dollars from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, will trickle into Harrisonburg over the coming months in various forms — through money to the city government, as stimulus checks and unemployment payments to residents and as loans and grants to businesses and organizations. 

How it can be spent depends on the specific program from which funds are coming. For instance, the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program is for businesses to keep workers on the payroll, whereas the $30 billion Provider Relief Fund, from the Department of Health and Human Services, is aimed at covering expenses hospitals incur fighting COVID-19.

Sentara Rockingham Memorial Hospital is one of the hospitals in the country that has received money and is among 6,271 medical providers in Virginia to receive a chunk of $814 million from that fund

Sentara RMH already “received an immediate infusion of stimulus funds,” according to marketing and communications staff Neil Mowbray, although he did not specify an amount.

“The hospital received the money proactively and did not have to apply for it, though it will have to attest that the money is being used to offset revenue losses due to reduced patient services and added costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mowbray said.

The CARES Act also includes relief specifically for airports, including the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport (SHD) in Weyers Cave, which is funded jointly by Harrisonburg, Waynesboro, Staunton, and Rockingham and Augusta counties. The airport’s management is still waiting to hear how much money it will receive and how it can be spent.

“Airports around the country are critical in their role of supporting travel and movement of essential personnel and equipment related to supply chains, medical and safety during the current crisis,” executive director Greg Campbell said. “The aviation system as a whole, including SHD, has experienced unprecedented reductions in traffic and revenues as a result of the current crisis.” 

Money in the hands of the people

Individual employees in Harrisonburg also stand to gain increased unemployment benefits. The CARES Act raised the amounts by $600 per week effective March 29 through July 31. 

Zach Srodulski, a December JMU graduate and employee at Rocktown Kitchen, filed for partial unemployment on April 15. He’s still able to work preparing to-go orders at the restaurant, but his hours have been “significantly reduced.” He was approved for benefits, but is still waiting to receive them. 

He told The Citizen the money would go toward his major expenses: rent, utility bills and paying off his federal student loans.

Without the unemployment checks, Srodulski said he just has enough saved to pay his bills until August.

“I am fortunate enough to have relatively low monthly expenses that allow me to live within my own means,” Srodulski said. “Any additional income, especially from government assistance, is beneficial to my long-term financial stability.” 

He said he has friends who lost their jobs and are only able to make ends meet with unemployment benefits and the $1,200 stimulus check.

“Everyone is struggling. Some more than others and everyone in their own way,” he said.

JMU’s quad is usually bustling with activity during the spring, but not this year as COVID-19 sent students home and faculty online to teach. (File photo by Holly Marcus)

Universities get a share?

Other college students, whether they’re still in Harrisonburg or have returned to live with their families, stand to benefit from the CARES Act via their institution. 

Eastern Mennonite University expects to receive $900,000 of the funds earmarked for higher education. Half of that has to be used for cash grants paid directly to students, said Tim Stutzman, the vice president for finance.

“We are in the midst of developing criteria, based on guidance from the Department of Education, on how to distribute those dollars to students,” Stutzman said. “The other 50 percent may be used by the institution to cover costs related to the closure of campus and the move to full online course instruction for the remainder of the semester.”

Mary-Hope G. Vass, James Madison University’s deputy spokesperson, said the institution has convened a working group to determine how to spend any stimulus package funds, although they haven’t received any yet. 

“JMU administration will provide information to all students and parents once decisions have been made regarding distribution of funds,” Vass said.

Help for community organizations

Open Doors, the organization currently running an emergency shelter for unhoused persons out of JMU’s Godwin Hall, has been “greatly impacted” by the stimulus package, Board Chair Graham Witt told The Citizen. 

The shift in operations required the organization to double its staff, increase the workload for managers and purchase additional supplies. 

While “the region’s thermal shelters were poised to make the greatest impact on our community’s homeless,” Witt said, “it was acknowledged the shelters would stand to bear the greatest fiscal brunt of this effort — while at the same time be the least prepared to absorb that burden, given this lies outside of most shelters’ normal budgets.”

Funds available through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development will cover about 75 percent of Open Doors’ operating budget through June 9. The shelter partnered with the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority to be eligible for these funds.

Another of Open Doors’ partners in the emergency shelter initiative, Our Community Place, has also received support from the stimulus package – specifically, through the Paycheck Protection Program loan. 

The loan, which will be forgiven if the organization keeps all employees on the payroll for eight weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, or utilities, has allowed Our Community Place to “retain all of our existing staff and given us the freedom to hire additional staff to meet the expanded programming needs stemming from the COVID-19 emergency,” said Eric Olson-Getty, director of development and administration.

Many businesses in Harrisonburg have closed or dramatically cut back services since mid-March. (Photo by Holly Marcus)

Downtown businesses navigate loan programs

The owners of Boboko Indonesian Cafe have also applied for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) as well as the Economic Injury Disaster Loan and Advance, which also is administered by the Small Business Administration.

“The PPP loan/grant was the most complicated and cumbersome of the two,” owners Mark Mitchell and Ridwan Hotiman told The Citizen in an email. “It required you to work with a bank which already handled SBA loans and our bank at the time did not.”

After their bank got certified to handle the loan, they were approved on April 16 and received the funds the following day.

“Now the difficult part will be tracking how we use the dollars in the next 8 weeks in an effort to get as much forgiven as possible. I feel this will be very difficult based on the guidelines and we are prepared for none of the funds to be forgiven,” the owners said.

In comparison, they said the economic disaster loan was easier to apply for online, although they’re still waiting to hear back about their application. 

“With so many unknowns on when we will be able to re-open and how quickly business will pick up after we open, we need to ensure we have enough funds to get us to the time when business at least meets our sales prior to Coronavirus on a long term basis,” the owners said.

Cushion for schools and city

The Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ main office. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

One of the largest dollar amounts coming to Harrisonburg so far is the $1.2 million that Harrisonburg City Public Schools expects to receive in the coming weeks.

Tracy Shaver, executive director of finance, said the Virginia Department of Education has indicated there are “very few restrictions” on how the division can use that money, but they’re still waiting to hear specifics.

“The stimulus money is much needed. No question. Without it, we would be in even worse shape than we’re in now,” Superintendent Michael Richards told The Citizen.

Shaver said the district will use the funds to cover technology, instruction and professional development costs, as well as other operating expenses. The federal money will replace money they are expecting to be cut out of state education funding. 

The CARES Act also removed restrictions on how schools can spend Title I funds, which are allocated to “education agencies for children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics

One such restriction limited how much Title I money that could be spent on technology. And the city schools are in the process of purchasing two-in-one Chromebook tablet-laptops for all students in kindergarten through 2nd grade.

Meanwhile, the Harrisonburg Police Department is seeking funding through the Bureau of Justice Assistance “to fund equipment, such as road signs, … that would strictly be HPD,” Parks said. But they don’t know yet if they’ll be approved.

Another large chunk of change will likely come directly to the municipality through the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which is aiming its COVID-19 relief funds at:

  • The construction or rehabilitation of buildings used for shelters, testing or equipment manufacturing;
  • Training for healthcare workers or service workers transitioning to food and pharmaceutical delivery;
  • Setting up telework and telemedicine services; 
  • And creating jobs and developing businesses to manufacture virus-related materials, such as personal protective equipment.

Michael Parks, the city’s director of communications, said city leaders will discuss options for how to spend those funds in Tuesday’s City Council meeting. The speed at which these programs are being created, funded and in some cases exhausted makes it challenging for recipients to plan around them, he said.

“With a lot of these new programs that are quickly being created, or new lines of potential funding, we are hearing about the potential for funds and then waiting to receive guidance on how those funds can actually be spent,” Parks said.

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