LEE COUNTY — The same bill Congress passed to put $1,200 in your pocket, also sent millions of dollars in aid to counties around the country.
Lee County just got its share, which came out to $135 million, but commissioners tell us, they weren’t given much instruction on how to spend it.
The commission decided on a first step at its meeting Tuesday, voting to spend $50 million of that money. The largest chunk of that, about half, will go to help out small businesses, and we talked to one business owner who said, she could really use the assistance.
About two months ago, Jennifer Whyte would have never thought she’d be making the long walk to the podium to address county commissioners with concerns about her business.
“We were still growing at a rapid 30% rate, year over year. Most businesses don’t see that. Most industries don’t see that type of growth, year over year, especially at year eight," said Whyte.
Whyte owns Fort Myers Brewing, and all that growth came to a screeching halt in the middle of March.
“We rely on draft beer sales to restaurants, bars, hotels, airports. That’s about 68 percent of our total business usually, and in mid-March, that dropped to zero," said Whyte.
County commissioners want to help business owners like Whyte, but given the circumstances, it’s hard to know where to start.
“We were given $135 million to help us respond to COVID-19 from the Federal Government with very few guidelines as to how to do it," said Commission Chair Brian Hamman.
The first step the county plans to take is to build a web portal, where businesses like Fort Myers Brewing can apply for up to $5,000 in assistance, but Hamman admitted, that won’t be enough to keep everyone afloat.
“If it’s somebody whose business was already on their last legs, and probably, unfortunately heading toward closure anyways, it would be very hard for us to save that business at this time, and that’s hard to say, because obviously we don’t want any business to close," said Hamman.
Whyte said her business also took advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program from the federal government. She said, with continued support, she’s confident her brewery will be packed again soon.
“We’ll get through this, and we’ll be stronger for it in the long run," said Whyte.
The County said it will take several weeks before that web portal goes online, because it doesn't want the portal to crash because of high demand. The board also said, in this first phase of assistance, $20 million will go toward rent, mortgage, and utility assistance.