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Small business grant winners are grateful, but have questions

Successful applicants not certain why they were awarded money, but other small businesses weren't.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Carmen Reale and his partners had put in the work.

For three years they built-up their gym, Rock Pile Athletics. They accumulated more and more members for their cross-training work-out center on Buffalo’s Main Street.

There was talk of expansion.

Then the pandemic hit. The gym quickly lost half its membership, and the owners discussed whether to hang it up.

Reale said, “Do we keep trying to claw by or do we call it at some point?”

In October, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz a $20 million small business grant program called, “Back to Business.” Reale wasn’t confident, but he and his partners applied. To their surprise, Rock Pile Athletics was awarded a $10,000 grant.

How did this struggling city gym win out in a pool of over 5,000 applications when only 1,386 grants were handed out?

Reale isn’t certain, “I’m not exactly sure why.”

When “Back to Business” was announced, Poloncarz made it clear he wanted women and minority-owned business prioritized as well as businesses in economically distressed zip codes.

It’s largely the same story for acupuncturist Toni Gaugen.

This year’s various COVID restrictions by state government resulted in the loss of half of the revenue for her practice, Queen City Health & Wellness in downtown Buffalo.

Before the pandemic, Haugen had a staff of four. Now it’s down to two.

Haugen said, “I was able to get by, by the skin of my teeth, because we do good work and we just happened to have just enough saved. But, if it weren’t for those two things, we would have gone under.”

She also submitted an application for the grant program without much confidence in landing some much needed cash. To her surprise, Haugen received a $10,000 grant, which will keep her practice going.

“I’m glad that I got it, but my heart aches for the businesses that did not,” Haugen said.

How did Haugen application prevail? She also does not know.

“I’ll be honest. I’m curious to know,” Haugen said.

2 On Your Side shares that same curiosity. 43North administered the “Back to Business” program for the county, with instructions from the Poloncarz office.

2 On Your Side has asked several times for those grant screening instructions, but both 43North and Poloncarz’s office have said that will have to wait.

43North is in the process of producing a comprehensive report. In it is expected to be a complete list of all grant recipients and the process used to determine which small Erie County businesses did and did not get grants.

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