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Bloomington businesses ask city for funding assistance amid coronavirus pandemic



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A chalkboard sign hangs outside March 22 in front of Malibu Grill. Bloomington restaurants and bars are asking the city for emergency funding to save their businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic. Claire Livingston

Bloomington restaurants and bars are asking for a lifeline to save their businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic. City officials said they agree something should be done, but nobody can agree on a quick way to do it.

A petition created by local business owners Sunday asks for money to be reallocated from the Food and Beverage Tax Fund to create loans or emergency relief for Bloomington businesses. Members of the commission governing the tax say the businesses need help, but there needs to be more discussion about ways to provide relief before dipping into the funds. 

Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a statewide directive Monday requiring all bars, nightclubs and restaurants to shut down in-house dining options until March 31. It limits food transportation to takeout and delivery options only.

Switchyard Brewing Company president Kurtis Cummings said he’s seen his sales cut in half in the last couple of weeks. Especially for a business as young as his, around a year and a half old, that drop is devastating. Cummings said he’s heartbroken that he had to lay off 24 staff members.

“They’re my family,” Cummings said.

He said he understands and agrees with the decision to shut down in-house dining, but that doesn’t mean bills stop. Cummings and other businesses heads, such as the owner of Cardinal Spirits, put their heads together and came up with the idea to draw money from the Food and Beverage Tax fund.

The Food and Beverage Tax was enacted in late 2017 for the sole purpose of funding the center’s expansion. It's a 1% tax on all food or beverages furnished, prepared or served by a retailer. The plan is to take about half of the fund, around $3 million, and create loans to keep small businesses afloat in the area, Cummings said.

“This is our livelihood,” Cummings said.

He said the bureaucracy of government could slow down the process of receiving the aid, but small businesses can’t survive during this pandemic alone.

“We can act faster than the federal government can,” Cummings said.

Steve Volan, a FAB Tax Advisory Commission member and city councilor, said Bloomington is currently in unprecedented times. He said the different branches of government have been communicating with each other and trying to figure out how to operate, but it’s still just the beginning of providing aid.

“We're making it up as we go along,” Volan said.

He said he likes the idea of helping small businesses, but he doesn’t want to inadvertently cut them off from government relief, as they may be disqualified from federal or state aid if they have already received it from the city.

“We may inadvertently screw the community because we were eager to react immediately,” Volan said. 

Erin Predmore, Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce president, said meetings are being set up within the next week or two to address these problems and how to help the community. There are a lot of unknown factors to consider with providing aid, she said, such as how long this pandemic will last and how long the aid is needed.

The chamber has been contacting elected officials, representatives and business owners to navigate this problem.

Taking money from the fund could hurt the Monroe Convention Center, Predmore said. If funds are reallocated now, which Predmore said is a possibility, that could push back the center’s development.

Cummings said his business is struggling, and he's already implemented ways to keep it afloat. The taproom's lights and heating are off, some of the staff has been let go. However, that doesn't stop the bills from piling up. He hopes people can support small businesses by patronizing them and donating money.

“We need help,” Cummings said. "We're not invincible."

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