Tim Bussey waits outside Downtown Barber Shop

Tim Bussey waits outside to get his hair cut at barber Genaro Vasquez's Downtown Barber Shop in Colorado Springs after the shop re-opened on Friday, May 1, 2020. El Paso County is setting aside $14 million of its federal funding to help businesses recover and residents find work. (Photo by Chancey Bush, The Gazette)

PHOTOS: Documenting COVID-19 in the Pikes Peak region

El Paso County expects to spend $14 million of its federal coronavirus aid on economic recovery, much of it through direct grants to businesses to help them recover financially from pandemic-related closures.

County commissioners Tuesday praised the plan for economic recovery spending that includes $8.3 million for grants to businesses, $4 million for job training and placement support, and $1.5 million in grants to chambers of commerce and other business support groups.

“This is absolutely the right thing for our county to do,” Commissioner Stan Vander-Werf said.

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Polis says outdoor dining options will be encouraged when restaurants reopenThe need for the aid is clear as the unemployment has surged in the Colorado Springs area, Pikes Peak Workforce Center spokeswoman Becca Tonn said.

The Colorado Springs area unemployment rate hit a five-year high in March, up to 5.4% from 2.9% in February, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez Jr. urged county staff to ensure the money is disbursed in a timely way.

“I did appreciate this is the largest pot of money because there are so many people in need,” he said.

The grant funding will come from the $125.7 million the county received from the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act.

El Paso County is distributing $41 million of the federal funding to municipalities in the county, such as the city of Colorado Springs, and retained $84.4 million to cover its own costs.

The economic recovery spending will be the largest single allocation of $84.4 million, according to the county presentation Tuesday.

Much of the other federal funding will be spent on paying county employees responding to the virus crisis, remodeling county buildings so they are safe for staff, providing personal protective equipment for employees, and instituting technology upgrades to help make it easier to work from home, County Controller Nikki Simmons said.

County officials are also planning to set aside $26.4 million in case of unforeseen costs, the federal government expands what the funds can be used for, or a second wave of coronavirus hits, she said.

To distribute the grant funding, the county is planning to partner the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs and the Exponential Impact, a business accelerator, that are providing financial relief, said Crystal LaTier, El Paso County economic development executive director.

The county also set up the Pikes Peak Enterprise Zone Business Relief Fund in April, and it will be distributing $900,000 of the federal funds, she said.

Grants are expected to be more beneficial than loans because it won’t burden the businesses with additional debt, LaTier said.

“It’s important to remember that it’s not faceless ‘businesses’ that are struggling, but people,” LaTier said in an email. “...So, it’s important to do it in the right way that recognizes the fact that the situation these people are in isn’t the result of a bad decision or risky investment.”

The county’s relief fund, the Downtown Partnership and Exponential Impact all have application processes in place that can be used to help select businesses for grants, she said. The Downtown Partnership and Exponential Impact are expected to recommend which businesses are to receive funding and the county will grant it directly to them, she said.

The first grant awards through the county’s relief fund will likely be announced this week as part of a phased approach, LaTier said.

Federal funding for job training and placement is expected to be granted to the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, which has seen demand for its services rise dramatically, center executive director Traci Marques said. The center is fielding about 250 calls per day, up from about 20 calls per day in early March, she said.

The center expects to use the federal funds to hire staff and pay for training provided by private industry to serve thousands more people than it did last year, said VanderWerf, a member of the center’s board.

The center helped about 15,000 people find jobs last year, and it hopes to help 30,000 residents get jobs in the second half of this year, he said.

To serve more people the center is going to open a temporary location by mid-June that will allow it to serve job-seekers in a socially distanced office by appointment, Marques said. The center’s current location is so small it could only serve about four people per day, Tonn said.

The center is working to connect residents with jobs in industries that are still hiring such as health care, information technology and construction, Marques said. She also expects the hospitality industry to start hiring again as more activity is allowed, she said.

“I have all the confidence I could ever want in their ability to effectively spend this money,” VanderWerf said.

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or 719-429-9264.

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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