As Craig ends program, previous recipients of the city’s Small Business Grant discuss its benefits

The neon sign for Craig's West Twin Cinema shines through the late November night.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press

For the past three years, the city of Craig awarded tens of thousands of dollars per year as part of its Small Business Grant program.

For the moment, at least, that program is going away. A mix of concerns over the grant’s legality relative to the city charter and its efficacy relative to the city budget led to a controversial nixing of the program as city council barreled toward its eventual 2022 budget approval in mid-November.

But, before the city canned the program, 29 local businesses were the recipients of more than $250,000 over the three years the grant existed. Among those businesses are some grateful entrepreneurs.

“It’s disappointing there won’t be more businesses that are able to take advantage of the funding,” said Moffat Mercantile co-owner Tammy Villard by phone Monday. “We do want to make sure the funding is coming from the proper source — we were able to take advantage of some COVID dollars, too, that came from the federal and state governments and didn’t come out of city coffers. I understand there’s a huge dollar amount to recoup via tax dollars, and to quantify how quickly it’s paid back can be challenging. But It’s disappointing the funding’s not there for other people to take advantage.”

Villard and Moffat Mercantile used the $3,000 they received through the grant in 2020 to help defray some of the costs of the store’s new facade overhaul, a job that Villard noted proudly used almost entirely local contractors.

“We used the funds we received (from the city) to pay for our awning and signage,” she said. “Our total project was about $7,500, they covered $3,000, which was a huge help. Any time you can cut your project cost almost in half, it’s tremendous. And we’ve had nothing but compliments on our new front.”

That strategy — investing a substantial chunk of a business’s own capital alongside the city funds — was used by a number of grant recipients, if not most. City manager Peter Brixius said almost three times the city’s investment was matched by business owners receiving the money. Big O Tires, which moved recently down the block from its old spot to the former Safeway building at Finley Way and Victory Way, was among that group.

“It meant a lot to our business,” said Big O co-owner Charlynne Wondra, whose business received nearly $16,000 in the latest round of grant awards. “We were able to paint the building and put up signs. That covered a little less than half the project budget, but we’ll take it. And we wouldn’t have been able to paint the building immediately without it. We would’ve had to wait.”

Villard sang a similar tune.

“We’d started to piecemeal (our project),” Villard said. “We knew it’d be quite an investment, and eventually we’d have done it, but it would have taken us much longer to build up capital before we could have finished the project.”

The argument that eventually won out, championed in part by the councilmember who was soon to become mayor, Ryan Hess, was that the program was both illegal and ineffective. When the legality matter seemed to have a workaround — one that, even if legal, felt to Hess and others on the council to be a bit less-than-above board — the efficacy was still in question.

“There’s a lot of things we can spend $85,000 a year on,” Hess told the Craig Press in the midst of the council debate.

Among other priorities the now-mayor contended would be better uses of that sum of money: Investments like sewer or sidewalk infrastructure that bring about more housing; overall public good projects like the downtown sidewalk; investments in the police force including uniforms and equipment; and a small business resource center.

“If $240,000 created, say, 20 jobs over the last two years, OK maybe I say that’s good,” Hess said. “Twenty full-time employment jobs. That’s bringing in some economic development. But go back and talk to people I’ve spoken with — they say we don’t have housing to add full-time employees. Add people to the workforce, they have nowhere to live.”

Quiet throughout the controversy, despite being inadvertently central in the debate, was a woman with feet in both camps — former councilmember Andrea Camp, who was both on the award committee for the grant and, as a business owner, a recipient of the grant itself. Although her position brought about some criticism from Hess and others for the potential appearance of integrity questions, Camp was happy to speak for the grant’s value from both sides of the conversation.

“I’m hopeful going forward more funding would come from (state or federal) grants and (the council) might reinstate the program,” Camp told the Craig Press by phone Monday.

The West Twin Cinema, co-owned by Camp, received $18,000 from the city grant in 2020. The city’s only movie theater had been recently purchased by Camp and her partner, Amy Updike, with the full stated purpose of saving the iconic venue from permanent closure. But the company needed help to refurbish the most visible piece of the theater’s exterior.

“We applied to refurbish or replace our sign,” Camp said. “We received two bids, one was $60,000 and the other $45,000. Obviously we saw the value — the theater is so visible and people see it driving into town. We felt it would be beneficial, not just to the movie theater, but to the community to have an updated sign. We applied and were awarded funds, and without those funds — especially in 2020 — we couldn’t have completed the project.”

Camp said the grant essentially saved the neon sign, which they ended up replacing at the same cost as it would have been to refurbish it.

“It’s not a project we could’ve completed without the help of the Small Business Grant program,” she said.

And that, Camp argued, is a picture of why the program is worth more than the immediate dollars and cents that come out of the handful of thousands of dollars per business that it awarded.

“I think it’s worth it. If you drive downtown, look at the number of businesses impacted,” Camp said. “You can see what a nice improvement it’s made on our downtown. Other businesses outside of just downtown took advantage as well, and while it was for some a struggle to complete the projects, taking advantage of the Small Business Grant got them that much more funding to complete the projects.”

Wondra sees that as an unquantifiable win for Craig.

“Look at downtown and how much nicer it looks,” Wondra said. “It’s helped everybody. Trying to improve the looks, and making our town more inviting, I think any time we can improve the city and the looks of the city — you never get a second chance at a first impression. That’s the truth. And if we want diversity in town and to bring other businesses, we have to make ourselves presentable.”

Camp, from her former position on the council —her term ended last week after she chose not to seek re-election — sees that from another angle, too.

“If the city applies for grant funding or looks to get people to move their businesses into our community, I think — my opinion — I think it’s good for those potential business owners or (those awarding) grant dollars to see our community investing in itself,” Camp said. “If we’re not doing anything but going outside and looking for grant dollars or expecting businesses to come here and invest their money — I just think it makes a huge impression if we’re investing in ourselves.”

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