MRCDC awards $82,500 in COVID-19 microgrants to Sto-Rox area small business owners

Rocks Express owner Bashir Akhter receives a $2,500 microgrant from MRCDC Executive  Director Taris Vrcek. The small business was one of 33 to receive a COVID-19 relief grant from the McKees Rocks non-profit.

As COVID-19 related restrictions continue to negatively affect our area businesses, McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation (MRCDC) is pleased to announce $82,500 has been awarded to recipients of its COVID-19: Sto-Rox Small Business Support Microgrant Program.

Created in conjunction with the Henry L. Hillman Family Foundation, the grant program provides a total of 33 McKees Rocks and Stowe Township merchants, operators and small business owners each with $2,500 in funds. 

Awarded to a variety of businesses, the $2,500 microgrants can supply flexibility in business plans for the coming months, as grant funds are used to navigate the continuous changes being caused by the pandemic. 

One of the grant recipients, Black Forge Coffee House opened in McKees Rocks on July 15, 2019.

“We were projecting towards a bright year but when COVID-19 shut everything down we hit an all-time low. We stayed open as take out only and sales were not acceptable,” said Owner Ashley Corts of her small business struggles during COVID-19.

“You can see a drastic dip in sales as soon as COVID-19 really hit while we should of been growing our sales and business. This grant would help us get back on our feet and get ahead of the bills that are stacking up.”

A recurring theme in many of the microgrant applications revolved around being late paying bills or having to chose to pay only important bills.

“The bar industry was hit hard, we were open for a total of 2 weeks to date since the closing of March 15, 2020. [The bar industry] continues to get unfairly singled out as the spreaders of the virus. The state and county guidelines are sadly setting us up for failure and bankruptcy,” wrote Susan M. Williams, who co-owns the Take A Break Too in the McKees Rocks Bottoms neighborhood with her sister, in the application.

“…They stopped our income but not our bills that continue adding and piling up.”

Since COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions began in March, MRCDC has worked closely with a variety of local businesses: from sole-proprietorships up to our community’s largest employers. Through our relationship with the Small Business Administration and others, we have been able to help many of these businesses secure critical resources.

We also heard chief complaints from others who feel they are unable to take on additional debt or are overwhelmed by the amount of documentation required to sign up for programming that may or may not be approved for. This is where our microgrant opportunity came into play. 

We know this microgrant program will not fix the larger needs many businesses face, we are hopeful it can provide critical gap funding to pay the rent, utilities, and other recurring expenses to keep these businesses afloat. 

Since the 1960s, microgrant awardee Quality Dry Cleaners, Inc. has been serving the Sto-Rox area. Jim Cermak has owned the business since 1997 proudly serving the community while navigating the 2008 recession. His next challenge is overcoming the restrictions related to COVID-19. Forced to close due to state mandates, Cermak reopened May 1 in hopes of continuing service for customers while retaining employment and paying the business expenses. 

According to Cermak, business has decreased by more than 70% for Quality Dry Cleaners. Many other applicants reported a loss of income of more than 50, 60 and even 75%.

Cermak said the microgrant could help to keep the doors open for regular hours to allow some “normalcy” for customers to resume business as usual.

With the future uncertain, Quality Dry Cleaners is preparing to service the community by considering options like at-home delivery and drop boxes to limit customers from personal contact for exchange of service.