By Donald James, Special to the Chronicle
If Michigan businesses – both small and large – are going to recover and excel economically from the nosedive that many have experienced at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s going to happen through a series of strong leadership and partnership endeavors at state and federal levels. At the forefront in our state is the almost 30-year-old Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) based in Lansing. Long a facilitator for economic recovery initiatives, it has helped small businesses in Michigan weather the storms brought by COVID-19 which began to wreak havoc in mid-March.
MEDC’s goals and objectives, in conjunction with more than 100 economic development partners, is to market Michigan as the key place in which to do business, and to assist businesses in their growth strategies. Mark Burton is MEDC’s president & CEO, beginning his tenure in March, less than a week before Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order declaring a state of emergency in Michigan.
While less than a week on the job, Burton’s professional background in state government, which included once serving as Gov. Whitmer’s chief strategist, proved invaluable as he began his tenure in the face of a global health crisis not seen in America in 100-plus years.
“I went to work right away by taking a look at our budget for the rest of the fiscal year, which at that point was from March to September,” Burton said. “We wanted to find every available dollar to get those funds out the door quickly and thoughtfully to help businesses across the state.”
According to Burton, to date MEDC has launched 20 programs aimed at helping small businesses in Michigan during the pandemic. The first, he said, was the Michigan Small Business Relief Program and was rolled out on March 19, three days after the governor’s first executive order. The small business program offered $10 million in grants and $10 million earmarked for loans.
Following a request from Gov. Whitmer on March 17, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), as provided by the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, offered low-interest loans to small businesses throughout the state that had been financially impacted by the coronavirus. MEDC partnered with Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC), a non-profit organization that serves as Detroit’s lead agency for business retention, attraction and economic development, to implement the program in Wayne County where $1.6 million in grants went to Wayne County, of which $800,000 was awarded to Detroit-based businesses.
Several months later, the Michigan Legislature approved $880 million of the Michigan’s CARES Act funding, a comprehensive federal relief aid package. MEDC was given $100 million which created the Michigan Small Business Restart Program. The program awarded grants up to $20,000 to small businesses throughout the state.
The Restart Program helped more than 14,000 small businesses with payroll, rent and utilities. The state’s breakdown of grant distributions, according to MEDC’s statistics, was 4,617 grants going to minority-owned businesses, 6,314 grants to women-owned companies, and 743 grants going to veteran-owned businesses.
In Detroit, the distribution of Restart Program funds from MEDC was again in partnership with DEGC. As a result, more than 900 small businesses in the Motor City received grants up to $20,000 which could be used to assist those businesses with operating expenses. Most of the recipients in Detroit were Black-, women- and veteran-owned businesses.
“I’m extremely proud that we’ve been able to set up unique programs that really address equity and inclusion of minority-owned businesses that are getting hurt more than other businesses because of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic,” Burton said. “And we did it because we were able to work with great partners, like Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, where Kevin Johnson is president and CEO.”
On Monday, Nov. 30, Gov. Whitmer and MEDC announced The Pure Michigan Small Business Relief Initiative created to provide $10 million in grants to at least 670 small businesses across Michigan in increments up to $15,000.
“As we continue to take necessary precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19, many of Michigan’s small businesses are experiencing additional strain, particularly now during the holiday season and heading into winter,” Whitmer said in a press statement. “We are fully committed to supporting our small businesses and their employees across the state as they navigate and persevere through this pandemic. By putting this federal funding to work, we can provide immediate assistance to those businesses hardest-hit by the pandemic.”
Burton agrees with the governor.
“Our priority continues to be focused on getting critically needed relief into the hands of those businesses that need it the most,” said Burton. “The Pure Michigan Small Business Relief Initiative, along with our ‘Support Local’ campaign, builds on our commitment to getting funds to small businesses across Michigan and creating a strong foundation for the success of Michigan’s workers and economy.”
When asked about the wisdom of individuals wanting to start various businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic which could conceivably continue through 2021 and into 2022, Burton said, “As odd as this may sound, it’s a great time to start a business. I would, however, encourage anyone looking to start a business in this pandemic to work with partners like Detroit Economic Growth Corporation or Michigan Economic Development Corporation. We have programs in place that can help, not just on the startup side, but also when it comes to important technical assistance issues such as building an online presence.”
Burton remains optimistic that Detroit and the entire state will continue to be attractive spots to companies around the nation and the globe looking to relocate all or part of their operations to the Motor City or to other cities and towns in the Great Lakes state.
“Detroit is a place where a lot of people want to be right now,” said Burton, a Michigan native. “That’s a testament to the work that’s been done over the recent years. There are some exciting projects happening, particularly for startups and entrepreneurs. There’s a real great eco-system for that happening in Detroit and the region.”
Among the core industries that are attracted to Detroit and other areas of Michigan include advanced manufacturing, medical device technology, engineering design and development, mobility and automotive manufacturing, diverse technology, professional and corporation services, film and digital media, and arts and cultural affairs.
Moving into 2021 and beyond, Burton is also optimistic about the economic outlook for Michigan companies and the overall recovery of the state’s economy. Yet, he knows that certain steps must be taken to persevere.
“We will never reach full economic recovery until we can contain and move beyond the virus,” Burton said. “It will take dedicated work, but we can get back and do even better than we were doing before the pandemic.”
To learn more about how MEDC and its state-wide initiatives can help small businesses in Detroit and across the state, log on to www.michiganbusiness.org or call 1.888.522.0103.