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Erie County task force aims to shore up businesses

Erie County is creating a task force to address businesses' needs during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

The task force's mission is to provide immediate and targeted assistance to local businesses; come up with short- and long-term policy and procedure recommendations at different levels of government; and identify the workforce businesses need to succeed in a present and a post-Covid-19 economy. The task force will reach out to businesses across the county for input.

The task force will consist of participants from business, government and community groups. Its co-chairs are Scott Pallotta, CEO of manufacturer Zehnder Rittling, and Brenda McDuffie, president and CEO of the Buffalo Urban League.

"All of us have been affected by the coronavirus," Pallotta said in recorded statement. "Our goal is to help businesses navigate these uncertain times so that they're able to reopen or get back up to full speed when it's safe to do so."

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said the task force will meet "quite a bit," although not in person. He talked about efforts to bring the local economy back to where it was before the pandemic struck.

"I hope we get back sooner rather than later, but I know that for every industry, it's going to be different," Poloncarz said. "There are some businesses that just won't survive this. So what can we do to ensure that we keep as many businesses alive in the long run is the goal of the task force, to help those that are currently working get the resources they need, including those that are looking to hire."

Poloncarz outlined other immediate steps the county is taking:

•The Erie County Industrial Development Agency, through its affiliate, the Regional Development Corp., has activated its disaster relief loan program for small businesses. The fund consists of $2 million, with loans of up to $50,000 each.

Poloncarz said because this is a federal program, an interest rate must be charged. The rate is 2.5%, which he said is the lowest allowable rate. The program allows for up to 12 months of interest-only payments.

Businesses can apply for these loans in addition to the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program; they don't need to choose one or the other.

• The agency has reached out to existing ECIDA and RDC loan clients, and is allowing for deferred loan payments or adjusted terms during the pandemic.

• The ECIDA has suspended enforcement of its "recapture" provisions, which allow the agency to claw back incentives from businesses that fall short of job requirements.

"We don't think it would be fair, because we know a lot of businesses have had to lay off staff or reduce their staff," Poloncarz said.

• The ECIDA is working with the state Economic Development Council to seek an emergency executive order that would allow the county's IDAs to provide expedited, direct lending to Covid-19-impacted businesses.

• A Covid-19 business impact survey will be launched next Tuesday, in conjunction with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and elected leaders from Erie and Niagara counties. The purpose is to assess the pandemic's impact on businesses and understand how the private and public sectors can work together to address potential gaps in resources.

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