ADAPTATIONFUND

A new Berkshire Regional Planning Commission fund will distribute $250,000 in grants to small businesses, with preference to those owned by people of color. From left are commission Senior Planner Laura Brennan and Executive Director Thomas Matuszko, Smokey Divas co-owners Frank and Penny Walker, Elegant Stitches co-owner Al Enchill and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

PITTSFIELD — The coronavirus pandemic has further tilted the economy toward large corporations, but a new local fund seeks to offer small businesses and nonprofits a lifeline.

Starting Dec. 1, Berkshire County businesses with up to 25 employees can apply for grants of up to $15,000 to cover costs experienced during the pandemic.

“We have struggled to keep the lights on and gas going,” said Penny Walker, who with Frank Walker owns Smokey Divas, a barbecue restaurant at 239 Onota St. “Everybody’s gone but the people who own it. I can’t afford to hire any staff right now.”

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission will distribute the $250,000 COVID-19 Adaptation Fund, which state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, secured in an amendment to the state’s pandemic supplemental budget. Applications from Black, Indigenous and people of color-owned businesses will be given preference, and $100,000 of the total pool will be administered in partnership with the Berkshires Black Economic Council to businesses owned by people of color.

“It’s a community that’s been hit hard by COVID, and it’s an important one for Berkshire County,” BRPC Executive Director Thomas Matuszko said of the Black, Indigenous and people of color community. “We want to show support for them.”

Funds can cover the purchase of coronavirus adaptation supplies as well as general expenses like rent, utilities, payroll and insurance.

More details can be found at berkshireplanning.org/berkshire-county-covid-19-adaptation-fund/.

Elegant Stitches at 237 First St. closed for four weeks when the pandemic first hit, said co-owner Al Enchill. Sales were down 47 percent when it reopened, and while the numbers have crept back up, there’s still “a long way to go.”

Enchill credited a federal Economic Injury Disaster Loan and a $10,000 city grant for helping him avoid laying off employees.

The new grant program “will go a long way to help small businesses to stay afloat,” said Enchill, who also sits on the steering committee of the Berkshires Black Economic Council.

Small businesses owned by people of color have been particularly strained by the pandemic.

Just 40 percent of Black business owners who responded to one poll expressed confidence that they could remain open through April 2021 without federal relief. Fifty-five percent of white respondents said they expected they could stay open in the poll conducted by Main Street Alliance and Color of Change.

Citing research from the Brookings Institute, Hinds said businesses owned by people of color had less access to federal funds during the pandemic.

“The way the federal money came out, it prioritized companies with established relationships with banks,” he said.

In addition to the adaptation fund, BRPC is working to administer Community Development Block Grant programs. Northern Berkshire and Southern Berkshire businesses with five or fewer employees and low- to moderate-income owners can apply.

The commission is also seeking federal grant funding for online banking and marketing to help small businesses adjust to post-pandemic conditions.

“We’re watching because of COVID, this really major shift away from Main Street toward Silicon Valley in terms of our economic structure,” Hinds said. “So we’re watching small businesses struggle at a time when our online stores are seeing unprecedented profits. The target here is really making sure our local small businesses can survive.”

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.