Missoula County is defending the job retention grants awarded to 27 area small businesses last week as a tool to help prevent further layoffs amid the pandemic.

More than 125 businesses across the county applied for the limited pool of funding, which totaled $625,000. The award amounts ranged from $10,000 to $25,000 and the majority of the funds – 58% – went to the food and drink industry.

“There were many different ways the role-out of program could have happened,” said Melissa Gordon, manager of grants for the county. “The program design we landed on, which was first-come first-serve for complete and eligible applications, made the most sense given that the goal was to get the funds out in short order.”

After the awards were announced in December, the Seeley Lake Pathfinder questioned the geographic distribution of the grants. Most, if not all of the businesses that applied for and received funding, were in the Missoula urban area.

Gordon said the county worked with the Missoula Economic Partnership, the Missoula Downtown Association, the county's communications team and neighborhood councils to help spread the word that the grants were available.

“I do recognize that some businesses in Missoula are set up to apply for funding,” Gordon said. “They're just more well equipped to be responsive to an opportunity like this. I think we did the best we could within the time parameters we had.”

When the county opened the application period for the job retention grants in early December, the number of businesses seeking support quickly surpassed the available funding.

All told, the county received more than 125 applications from businesses seeking $2.8 million in funding to retain jobs. In the end, 27 businesses were selected to receive a combined total of $625,000 in grants.

“People learned about this electronically. No one gains an advantage by where you are,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “It's unfortunate we didn't have enough money to give an award to everyone who applied. This was the best possible structure given that our goal was to get this money out the door as fast as possible, because people are hurting the way they are.”

In past years, the county has awarded funding from the Community Development Block grant revolving loan fund as loans to help with economic development.

But this time, with the urging of county staff, it changed the loans to grants to help area businesses retain low- to moderate-income jobs.

“People wonder what Missoula County is doing to help with the economic crisis we're in. This is it,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “It's not as much as we wish we could provide, but it's not an insignificant amount of money and it was leveraged creatively. These are familiar small businesses in our community.”

To have qualified for a grant, the business had to be located in Missoula County and have 50 or fewer employees. It also had to show measurable revenue losses and further risk of additional layoffs.

County staff pulled the program together before Congress reached agreement on the latest COVID relief package.

“This was a stop-gap until the feds moved in with greater resources,” said Slotnick. “It doesn't mean everything is all right for everyone. We're in a terrible spot, but it's not nearly as bad as it would have been if better legislation hadn't come in.”