NEW BERN, N.C. — North Carolina’s small businesses are the lifeblood of many communities, but also an economic driver, combining to export $6.1 billion in goods in 2019.
Since the onset of the pandemic, many have struggled to stay afloat.
On Sept. 28, Duke Energy doled out $750,000 total to 30 counties across North Carolina through its Hometown Revitalization Grant program.
The $25,000 grants are meant to help the state’s 964,280 small businesses—which Duke Energy sees as the heart of communities—and their 1.7 million employees adapt to the challenging atmosphere created by Covid-19.
Eight eastern North Carolina counties received funding including Jones, Duplin, Lenoir and Beaufort.
Not only have small businesses in the coastal region of the state had to deal with the pandemic, but many are still in recovery from Hurricanes Florence, Matthew and Dorian.
“With revitalization efforts getting interrupted due to natural disasters and the recent pandemic, the Duke Energy Hometown Revitalization Grant program will help push beautification in our small towns and equip the local businesses to better serve the community and its citizens,” said John Bender, economic development director of Jones County in a statement.
In Jones County during Hurricane Florence, dozens of businesses were damaged with the rising Trent River and many were never able to re-open. The pandemic did not make the way any easier for already hurting entrepreneurs.
Supported by its booming plantation-centered economy, Jones County was one of the richest in the country by 1860. After the Civil War, the still mainly agricultural county’s wealth started to decline.
Fast forward to today and the Committee of 100 is working to attract business and industry to Jones County, marketed by its location along major highways and in between larger cities in North Carolina.
“We really want to see our economy thrive and are willing to work hard to do so. The overall state of economic development is gearing up to be the best it has been in a long time,” Bender said. “I predict nothing but good things to come in this county, and we are always working on achieving such.”
The grant will benefit Maysville, Pollocksville and Trenton, Bender said.
The Hometown Revitalization program was announced in April and stated that 20 counties would be selected for a total of $500,000, however the overwhelming need and quality of applications caused Duke Energy to expand its parameters.
“We were astounded by the number and quality of the applications, so we decided to increase the foundation’s commitment and help even more downtown communities bounce back,” said Stephen De May, North Carolina president of Duke Energy, in the press release.
The grants are given to local nonprofits centered around downtown revitalization to set up microgrant programs. Organizations may award individual businesses microgrants between $500 to $2,500.
The grant program will focus on businesses with 50 employees or less and may be used for expenses of a past project a business has completed.
The town of Kinston, county seat for Lenoir, was driven by the tobacco industry and its lumber and cotton mills in the 1900s. Prosperity came to a halt in the 1960s and revitalization efforts started not long after.
Downtown Kinston Revitalization, previously known as Pride of Kinston is tasked with beautifying, preserving and improving what downtown Kinston has to offer and noted that the pandemic has made their goal a challenge.
Sarah Arney, community development planner for Kinston, said that the grant came at the perfect time.
“Downtown Kinston Revitalization has been working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to serve and promote downtown business owners during this incredibly challenging time. The best thing we can do to bolster small business are to help lessen the financial losses they have experienced during closings and restrictions and to help them make important changes to safely attract customers in the future,” Arney said in the release.
In Beaufort County, Downtown Washington on The Waterfront has worked to support its small businesses by adjusting traffic patterns to increase traffic on Washington’s Main Street as well as create future development opportunities. For them, the grant is a way to give back to the businesses that make the town of Washington what it is.
“Washington’s small businesses are the backbone of our community. They have faced recent challenges with grace and it will be wonderful to help them recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and hopefully grow and expand their businesses for the future,” said Margaret G. Howdy, executive director.
The Hometown Revitalization program was born out of a partnership between Duke Energy and the Downtown Raleigh Alliance with the goal of revamping city storefronts. The program was successful in helping almost 100 businesses create user-friendly websites, amp-up curb appeal, build outdoor seating and foster safer spaces for customers.
“Downtowns are the lifeblood of communities all across North Carolina. The vitality of downtowns comes from the local shops and restaurants that make each town unique,” said Amy Strecker, director of foundation strategy for the Duke Energy Foundation. “When those small businesses thrive, we all win, so the Duke Energy Foundation is proud to play a role in helping our customers and these communities bounce back.”