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Loans target small Marion County businesses struggling through COVID-19 crisis

Help may be on the way for many of Marion County’s small businesses that are battling to survive during the Coronavirus outbreak.

That’s because on Tuesday the Marion County Commission agreed to make $250,000 available to the Ocala/Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership (CEP) for loans of up to $25,000 to some of those businesses. The CEP also is working to secure $250,000 from the city of Ocala, which would mean at least 20 businesses could secure loans, assuming they each take the maximum amount available.

Like many small businesses across the country, those in Ocala and Marion County have been hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. Many have been forced to scale back or completely shut down.

“It is a start,” said CEP President and CEO Kevin Sheilley. “It is something that we can do. We think this is a fantastic local response that will help some of our businesses.”

Sheilley said his staff has been making calls to local employers and have listened to their concerns as the entire nation struggles through the Coronavirus pandemic.

“They’re concerned about having the cash flow to not only get through the cycle, but to get to the point where they could apply or receive state funds, federal funds, whatever may come from future federal bills,” Sheilley said.

Businesses with 25 or fewer employees as of this past Dec. 31 would be eligible to apply. A Marion County resident must be the majority owner and the business must have been in operation for at least two years. Eligible businesses also must be non-chain and non-franchise establishments.

The loans would be administered by the CEP’s Foundation, with members of the county’s Industrial Development Authority serving as the review committee. All of the details are still being worked out, but the initial plan calls for 2.5 percent interest to be charged on the 36-month loans.

Under the current plan, there would be no repayment for the first six months, followed by interest only for the next six months. Principal and interest payments would then kick in and there would be no penalty for early payment.

Commissioner Carl Zalak said he would prefer if possible that the money allocated Tuesday go to businesses in the unincorporated portion of the county instead of those just in Ocala. Commissioner David Moore said he was concerned about that idea because many residents who live in the county work in Ocala. And Commission Chairman Kathy Bryant reminded Zalak that everyone who lives in Ocala also is a Marion County taxpayer.

“I think we need to be really careful on our comments here,” she said, while asking Sheilley to provide a list of those businesses that receive loans and continued updates as the program is administered.

Sheilley promised to do that and said his top concern is getting the money to the business owners as soon as possible – hopefully by sometime next week.

“In my mind, this is a great way that all of these partners can work together,” he said, adding that he has overseen similar loan programs in other communities following 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis.

Commissioner Michelle Stone said she was fully in favor of the loan program, especially since going through state and federal programs to receive money can be a very lengthy process.

“I think this board’s decision could really make a big difference to these businesses,” she said.

Sheilley said he hopes to have the applications for the loans available in the very near future. Those who are interested to learn more can continue to visit Ocalacep.com for more information.

Photos in Ocala, Florida

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