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Small business owners seek lifeline in new grant program offered by Rowan County

SALISBURY — Shelly Corriher, Suzanne Phillips and Jeff Penfil were among a handful of small business owners sitting in the J. Newton Cohen Sr. Room in the Rowan County Administration Building on Monday, waiting for the clock to strike 12.

When noon came, they walked several feet to a nearby cabinet and picked up an application for Rowan County’s new small business grant program. Approved by commissioners last week, the grant program will distribute $350,000 to eligible businesses on a first-come, first-serve basis. The application period opened Monday at noon.

For the next few minutes, the business owners sat quietly and filled in the blanks, jotting in the addresses of their stores and writing in the number of employees they currently have, among other required information.

Although the process took less than 10 minutes for most applicants, the ramifications could last for much longer. 

Over the previous nine months, Corriher, Phillips and Penfil have watched as COVID-19 has ravaged their businesses, forcing them to close or reducing their businesses to a halt. As the holidays approach, the small business grant program, which offers between $3,500-5,000 depending on the size of business, will be much more than a gift — it’ll be a lifeline.

“It’d about be a life saver,” said Corriher, the owner of Wanderer’s Rest Home Emporium. “We’re still so behind. Just having one down month, when you’re a small business can really domino into another.”

Corriher quit her full-time job to run Wanderer’s Rest Home Emporium just two months before the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to temporarily shutter the business. Now, she’s the store’s only employee, which makes her eligible for $3,500, which is earmarked for business with one to five employees.

A gift and home decor shop, Wanderer’s Rest Home Emporium is typically busiest during the holiday season. This year, Corriher said, business hasn’t picked up as much.

“It’s still slow,” Corriher said. “Christmas time is really the biggest time for us and it’s where I get my cushion for next year, but we’re still teetering along.”

If Corriher receives the small business grant, this will be the first aid she has applied for or received. Phillips said her business, Blair Phillips Photography, benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program, but that the funding from that program wasn’t able to fully alleviate the hit of having most of its business shut down.

“We do school and sports photography,” Phillips said. “When they closed in March, we weren’t allowed to go in from March, April, May until the end of school. When they went back into schools, they said no outside vendors. We’re considered an outside vendor, so 99.9% of our business is school and sports and we can’t get in.”

After having to shrink his staff after schools closed, Phillips said receiving a grant from the program would allow her to hire back an employee or two.

“I can at least get one or a few more employees back in that can work on some of the things we have going on in the studio on the back end,” Phillips said.

Penfil said that the grant would help him pay rent he owes on the space where he operates Stately Homes, an antiques and fine consignment furniture store, in downtown Salisbury. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Penfil said that his customer base has disappeared. The disposable income that shoppers from near and far once used to buy furniture or antiques from his store is either gone or being used on necessities. That’s left him with a shop full of inventory that he can’t sell.

“The shop is so full right now,” Penfil said. “If I take on anymore of anything, you won’t be able to walk in there.”

Penfil has been selling antiques in downtown Salisbury for over two decades, and he said that he wants to continue to do so for years to come.

“I hope I can survive through it,” said Penfil, whose love of antiques began at a young age. “I think I have a nice shop and I think I’m an asset to downtown.” 

Helping businesses survive is exactly why the Rowan County Board of Commissioners directed staff to create the grant program.

“The commissioners have worked really hard on this,” County Manager Aaron Church said. “We’ve had several special meetings over the last six months to make sure the county spends the CRF money in compliance with the federal guidelines and to have the greatest benefit for the citizens.”

The application period for the small business grant program will close at 5 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 4. More information can be found online at rowancountync.gov.

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