Ahead of Gov. Chris Christie's scheduled town hall in Belmar Tuesday, a group of small business owners, organized by the New Jersey Main Street Alliance, gathered to criticize the governor for comments he had previously made regarding the Economic Development Authority's handling of the Stronger NJ Business Grant and the Stronger NJ Business Loan programs.
The programs were set up to offer recovery grants and loans to small businesses and non-profit organizations that experienced a minimum of $5,000 in damage from Superstorm Sandy.
At a town hall last week in Flemington, Christie said that the demand for the grants has been below expectations.
But the NJ-MSA claims that while the state had only awarded $15.2 million to 314 businesses as of Monday, over 3,300 small businesses had requested roughly $167 million in grants since the program's inception in May until the new application deadline in December.
As of Wednesday morning, the EDA had awarded $15.4 million to 317 businesses, according to spokesperson Virginia Pellerin.
"Governor Christie's dismissive words were an outright insult to the thousands of small business owners who applied for the Stronger NJ Business grants months ago," NJ-MSA business representative Corinne Horowitz said. "These constituents are still stuck in limbo as they try to get the money they need to restore their businesses."
The group also claims the application process has been frustrating and confusing for small business owners.
"My jaw dropped when I heard that somebody claimed there was no demand for the Stronger NJ Business Grants," Kristen Scalia, owner of Jersey City retail shop Kanibal Home, said. "I was outraged when I heard it was the governor himself. He should know better."
Kenny Akerman, owner of Ocean Towers and Welding in Point Pleasant Beach, added that despite working on his application for months, he has seen his case transferred roughly five times.
"I am tired of calling and emailing with no response…I have just about given up," Akerman said.
Pellerin said that while initial response for the grant programs was slow, it’s largely attributable to the program’s May 1 launch-date when shore area businesses were tasked with opening for the summer season. As a result, the EDA saw an uptick in applications after Labor Day.
Another factor that contributed to the slow start was that businesses were required to apply for to the Small Business Administration and settle with their own insurance companies before resorting to the program, Pellerin said.
Just since Feb. 10, 80 businesses have been approved for grants, making up 25 percent of the 317 total grants approved to date. Pellerin said that due to adjustments made in order to implement a “team approach” to the application review process, the number of approvals keeps climbing.
“Due to changes we have made to the application and review process, we have seen a considerable uptick in approvals and expect that trend to continue,” Pellerin said.
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