At a time when promised federal aid can be hard to get, a new partnership of Wallowa County organizations and generous individuals is riding to the rescue. The Wallowa County Business Fund (WCBF) will be taking applications for outright grants to struggling local businesses, beginning May 18.

The fund is a partnership of Wallowa Resources, Soroptimist, Rotary, Northeast Oregon Economic Development District (NEOEDD), the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce, and the Wallowa County Commissioners. “The current challenge to small businesses is serious,” said Wallowa Resources executive director Nils Christoffersen. “It really demands a community-wide response.”

The WCBF is the first business assistance fund that is sourced entirely by private, local individual donations in Oregon. “All other small grants and loans to local businesses come from government,” said NEOEDD’s Lisa Dawson. “But here, we don’t have the government resources to respond in the same way. This is a Wallowa County way of responding.”

The organization is the brainchild of Wallowa County commissioner John Hillock.

“What spurred me to do this was that Commissioner Roberts and Lisa Dawson of NEOEDD were working on a USDA grant to support local business. But when I looked through the application, it was so full of criteria that most local people aren’t going to be able to qualify,” he said.

When Hillock got his $1200 coronavirus check, he realized that a lot of small businesses needed that money more than he did. And, he thought, there were probably others in the county who’d also be willing to give their government largess to keep some Wallowa County businesses afloat in these hard times. He sent out an email. In response, eight people promptly offered to donate their CARES payment. With about $10,000 promised as a start, WCBF was on its way to being born.

Hillock not only rounded up willing donors, but also took the idea of a locally sourced fund to the Wallowa County nonprofits that could help generate, accept, administer, and award the funds.

“They were all enthusiastic,” he said. The fund, they agreed, would provide small grants of under $1000 to businesses that desperately needed cash. “It could be,” Hillock said, “that a restaurant has managed to make enough to pay the rent, but then doesn’t have enough cash to buy food so they can serve their (take-out) menu.”

“Some of the relief money we are working on at the county level is so restricted it will never get to the small, local businesses that need it the most,” Hillock said. “We wanted to make funds simpler to get and quickly available. And show local businesses that the whole community supports them.”

“If people could make their donations before May 18th that would be great,” said Wallowa Resources Development Director Larz Stewart. “That way we can award grants to businesses by the end of this month.”

While the WCBF was started with the idea of making a single donation to support the immediate needs of small business, there’s the potential for a longer-lived project, Hillock said. “If people want to provide support for however long this may last, they can make additional or even monthly donations to the fund.”

The coalition’s goal is to put community donations into the hands of local businesses, including sole proprietorships, as quickly as possible to meet any needs they might have. Any legally registered business based in Wallowa County that has been measurably impacted by the efforts to curtail COVID-19 is eligible for support. At this time, the fund will not be used to support nonprofits.

Soroptimist and Rotary will help garner donations. NEOEDD will set up and receive all applications, determine eligibility based on the criteria set up, and the meetings of the partners to award grants.

Wallowa Resources will accept the funds, and write the checks. Donations to the WCBF will be accepted at any Community Bank drive-up window as well as Wallowa Resources’ website and of course, by mail.

“We want to keep it simple, we want to get it out quick, we want to help people,” Hillock said.

“I think this shows how the community recognizes that our small businesses are a vital part of Wallowa County and that many of them have been left behind by the federal government,” Dawson said. “I’m really proud to be part of Wallowa County. People care.”

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