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Employment in the hotel, restaurant and hospitality sectors in Arkansas has plummeted since the coronavirus began spreading across the state in March.

More than 21,000 Arkansans have lost their jobs in service industries primarily because of the pandemic. And, as covid-19 cases continue to spike, there is little hope for a quick turnaround without some financial support.

Now, the state is offering $50 million in grants to hotels, restaurants, tourism operators and other service-sector firms that have lost business in the raging pandemic.

Funding is intended to cover losses from covid-related business restrictions imposed on the local, state or federal levels.

Any business in those sectors -- including salons and health clubs -- that has fewer then 250 employees is eligible for the grants. The application process ends Wednesday and grants are expected to be awarded before Christmas.

Unlike other programs that have provided economic relief, the initiative is not first-come, first-served. Grants will be awarded based on need, according to Stacy Hurst, secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.

Under the initiative, purchases of personal protection equipment -- everything from masks to mops -- can be submitted for reimbursement. Business owners also can request relief for rent or mortgage interest payments for the period from March 1-Sept. 30.

Businesses are eligible for grants of up to $250,000 and the program mandates that the money must be spent in Arkansas.

Individual award amounts will be based primarily on the difference between sales tax payments from 2019 to 2020 for the March-September period. "Those sales tax payments will really illustrate the economic impact on businesses and determine the grant amounts," Hurst said.

Beyond rent and mortgage, there is a broad list of expenses that can be included for reimbursement: utilities, telephone or internet service, transportation costs, insurance payments, payroll, technology costs associated with shifting to virtual operations and marketing expenses related to advertising new hours or changes in operations because of the pandemic.

Businesses that had to reconfigure workspaces or restaurant seating, for example, also can ask for reimbursement for professional services that were needed to build safer environments.

The program will not provide support for tax payments or lost revenue or profits caused by the pandemic. And, though the program does cover regular insurance payments, it will not provide relief for damages to a business that could be covered by insurance.

At least 15% of the $50 million -- or $7.5 million -- is targeted for women- and minority-owned businesses.

The initiative uses federal money given to the state through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that Congress approved in March. The state program is administered through Parks, Heritage and Tourism with support from the departments of Finance and Administration, and Commerce.

The leaders of the three departments will serve on the review committee to approve the grants along with a designee from each agency.

Go to arkansasready.com to apply. The site includes a webinar that walks applicants through the process and provides a checklist of documents and other materials that need to be submitted.

REWARDING ENTREPRENEURS

Three central Arkansas small business owners walked away with cash prizes last week as area entrepreneurial support organizations celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week.

The trio of Beatrice Klokpah of Eunoia Therapy & Self Development, Keneasha Scott of K Scott Consults, and Kanesha Adams of Eduscape won a total of $18,500 in cash prizes after delivering virtual pitches for a panel of judges at a Little Rock event recognizing the week.

Global Entrepreneurship Week was established to remove barriers and promote entrepreneurship and startups.

The Central Arkansas pitch competition was a collaboration between the Little Rock Venture Center, Conductor, Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center and Innovate Arkansas.

"Today's entrepreneurial challenges are unlike any we have ever experienced before, and strengthening our support network is essential," Ashley Jones of the Venture Center said in noting the cooperative effort.

Last week's participants also benefited from one-on-one coaching sessions with mentors as well as a collective group pitch workshop.

FRANCHISE FEE CHANGE

Companies doing business in Arkansas were notified last week of a change in processing of franchise taxes.

Beginning Jan. 1., the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration will accept and process franchise taxes, which previously were administered by the Secretary of State's office. Arkansas lawmakers altered the process in 2019 legislation.

Companies that conduct business in the state are required to pay the annual tax, which totaled $28 million in 2019. Approximately 150,000 companies pay franchise taxes each year in Arkansas.

Franchise taxes are due by May 1.

The Secretary of State's office will continue to serve as the point of contact for registering and launching a business in the state as well as defining the organizational structure of the business.

HELPING KIDS

Little Rock's Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids (P.A.R.K.) will received $50,000 from Bank of America for being selected as the lender's neighborhood champion in Arkansas. The initiative also includes leadership training for the program.

Bank of America launched its neighborhood champions program in Arkansas in 2019 to support the role nonprofit leaders play in advancing economic mobility.

More than 540 local youth have graduated from P.A.R.K.'s year-round weekly after-school and summer enrichment program.

Bank of America plans to bring the program to more than 40 other communities across the U.S. this fall.

P.A.R.K. strives to enrich the lives of central Arkansas' at-risk youth in grades 8-12.

"Partnership is key to having continued success in helping transform a community," said Keith Jackson, P.A.R.K. founder. "Bank of America has been a very supportive partner in this transformation, and we at P.A.R.K. are genuinely thankful to be named its Arkansas neighborhood champion."

Column ideas or recommendations? Thoughts or musings that need pursuing? Contact me at amoreau@adgnewsroom.com or at 501-378-3567.

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