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New grant program hopes to keep MKE businesses competitive with new COVID-safety improvements

Posted at 10:45 PM, May 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-28 23:45:18-04

MILWAUKEE — The City of Milwaukee has started taking applications for a new grant program to help small businesses start to reopen with COVID-safe improvements.

The Milwaukee Business Restart Program is funded with $20 million from the CARES Act. The City says businesses can be given up to $15,000 for COVID-19 safety measures inside the business.

"We want to help them adapt to the new situation," Natanael Martinez, Commercial Corridor Manager for the City of Milwaukee said. "We also want to make businesses safer for employees as well as customers."

The grant has stipulations for how the businesses use the money. It can be used for purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees, investing in modifications to business spaces and operations that reduce the spread of disease and restocking perishable inventory.

"It could be helping your mom and pop shops get further up to speed with technology to have alternative cashless transaction systems," Martinez said. "Or, other creative things. It could be marketing for social distancing as well as barriers which we've seen in grocery stores. It's a pretty broad category to really allow those business owners the creativity to adapt to the situation. That's really the goal; to help these businesses pivot for something that we haven't seen before and really be creative in their approach."

This also helps with stores who didn't get money from the Paycheck Protection Program or other federal aid. Martinez says the city will select the businesses after they all submit. Other programs paid out money on a first come, first served basis.

"We're not doing that," Martinez said. "We'll hopefully be able to catch a lot of those businesses that may have fallen through the cracks."

Like Bryant Wilcox, Chief Executive Officer for The BattleBox Studios on 55th & Lisbon. He missed out on the two rounds of the PPP so, he says, the city's grant program is his last hope.

"I'm in a whirlwind of anxiety," Wilcox said. "We're eeking out a meager existence. Right now, any help will do. Any help will do."

Wilcox shut his business down in March. They have been able to operate curbside pick up services and saw a sudden influx of customers before the quarantine, as people geared up to have video games to keep them company during the time inside. However, things leveled off. The money they made then was important to keeping the lights on so they couldn't replenish their stock.

However, Wilcox says, they wouldn't have been able to anyway.

"We buy, sell and trade," Wilcox said. "All of our pipelines we order stuff from, they were down as well. I'd complain and message places we would buy stuff from. They're like, 'You're not essential. We're not sending.' I'm like, we just want some controllers."

Wilcox is fearful they won't be selected for the Milwaukee Business Restart Program because of the third stipulation on restocking perishable goods.

Because his video games and consoles aren't perishable, he doesn't think he'll be able to utilize funds from the program to replenish his store, even though he feels his stock of games was directly impacted by COVID-19 stopping shipments.

"If we don't get the money, we're going to expire," Wilcox said. "We're going to perish."

Martinez says the decision to use the word 'perishable' was to help businesses who may have expired goods.

"I think we came at it with the approach that many of these businesses, if they're not perishable, they might have been able to maintain things," Martinez said. "With operations being reduced or businesses being closed where there might not be as much of a need as those businesses with perishable inventory. So we're going to monitor it."

Because they're a small store, Wilcox says they may not make it. He feels they are once again, falling through the cracks.

"We literally live off each of those transactions," Wilcox said. "We live off that stuff."

Wilcox thinks they deserve the money because they're more than a video game store. The walls are lined with memorabilia and gaming consoles from years past. It's more modern history than it is a retail store. The items that line the walls and are under plexiglass mean much more.

"You can relive your childhood," Wilcox said. "We sell memories here when you come buy old retro games. That's a big part of folks' childhood."

He also thinks this is a safe and healthy alternative to any trouble kids could get into outside of their homes.

"When summertime comes and guys come to sell me their Playstation or Xbox, I always ask, you sure you want to do this?" Wilcox said. "Now you're not going to be home at night playing 2K or Call of Duty. You're probably going to be hanging out somewhere. You can use your imagination where that goes."

Wilcox also runs different programs to help children in the city. During Christmas, they anonymously donate games to individual children. They also encourage kids to get good grades.

"We have an honor roll program where we give kids $5 tokens," Wilcox said. "It's currency only spendable in the video game store. That's hard to do for a kid. Obviously, if they get two tokens, it's worth 10 bucks. Three tokens, 15 bucks right? Well, for four tokens, it's technically 20 bucks but if they get that, I'll make it worth $40. I'm teaching them how to save."

He says their store on the corner of 55th and Lisbon could be gone soon without the money.

"We've been talking about selling the property," Wilcox said. "We've been talking about selling the business. That's a real discussion but I don't know. It's just the unknown. We don't know if we're going to be able to continue on."

As of Thursday afternoon, the City of Milwaukee says they've received over 100 applications. They are accepting applications until June 12th. They expect to start giving out money by the end of June or early July.

For more information on how to get involved, visit Milwaukee.gov/Restart.

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