Gov. Chris Christie's plan to spend half a billion dollars of federal Hurricane Sandy aid on small businesses and tourism is gaining wide support from the business community.
Christie late Tuesday released his plan for the first wave of federal Sandy recovery money. The $1.8 billion will come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the form of Community Development Block Grants.
Christie's plan, submitted last month to HUD and released Tuesday on the Department of Community Affairs' website, places the Economic Development Authority in charge of $500 million worth of business-focused initiatives.
The largest piece of that money will go toward a $300 million small-business grant program. Christie first announced that program in late January at the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce's Walk to Washington dinner.
Laurie Ehlbeck, New Jersey State Director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said her members are very interested in the program.
"People call me about that all the time," she said. "They're trying to figure out different ways that will enable them to get back on their feet."
The program will award grants of up to $50,000 to companies that sustained physical damage during Hurricane Sandy.
The package also includes a no-interest loan program to help businesses with physical damage not covered by insurance or other forms of assistance. Those loans will range from $100,000 to $5 million.
Michael Egenton, senior vice president with the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, said he's pleased with the $25 million allocated for tourism marketing. He said the money would supersede a supplemental appropriation bill aimed at funding the effort.
"We're working with a lot of our regional chambers of commerce, because there's still that misperception out there that the Jersey Shore was devastated — that it's closed," he said. "We want to make sure before the summer season is in high gear there's proper marketing. Businesses are open. The Shore is open, and we want to make sure we don't lose those tourism dollars."
The final piece of the package is $10 million for neighborhood and community revitalization programs.
Ehlbeck said the announcement sends a positive message to homeowners and business owners nervous about how post-Sandy regulatory changes might affect their rebuilding efforts.
"This is hopeful to us, because it shows me that at least the people up there making decisions are conscious of the issues that businesses have in their attempts to reopen or rebuild," she said.
Still, Egenton said, time is still a major factor. After the federal government's lengthy delay in authorizing Sandy recovery funding, Christie's plan for the federal money comes just two and a half months ahead of the traditional start of the summer tourism season, Memorial Day.
"The clock is ticking," he said. "That's why it's critical to get those dollars out now, because people are already booking where they're going to be going for the summer season."
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