When East Windsor was allocated nearly $3.5 million through the American Rescue Plan Act, the Board of Selectmen knew a significant portion of the funds must go towards helping struggling small businesses and nonprofits.
What followed was the East Windsor Emergency Relief and Stabilization Effort COVID-19 Grant.
The grant was designed for small businesses and nonprofits to “adopt safer operating procedures, weather periods of closure, or mitigate financial hardship resulting from the COVID-19 public health emergency.”
The end result was over $1 million going to 133 different businesses that received up to $10,000 each to help get through the toughest stretch of the pandemic.
Businesses ranging from restaurants, to home improvement, to nonprofits, and more benefited from this program.
Forty-four percent of grant recipients were women-owned businesses and 19% were minority-owned.
Unlike other government grant programs, which are complex and quick to disqualify candidates, the goal of this program was to “help people get to yes,” East Windsor First Selectman Jason Bowsza said.
“We want to make sure this is a service that we’re providing to businesses and nonprofits in town, so we don’t want to become obstructive to our own goal,” he said.
Bowsza knew that considering the dire circumstances many businesses faced, East Windsor had to move beyond words of encouragement.
"This was an opportunity for us to actually put cold hard cash on the line," Bowsza explained, "and say 'we appreciate our businesses being here.'"
To reach as many businesses as possible, East Windsor conducted an extensive outreach program, including mailing businesses information about the grant, social media posts, press releases, and events with U.S. senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and U.S. Rep. John Larson.
In addition, Bowsza went door-to-door to over 65 businesses, 40 of which applied for and received the grant due to his outreach.
“People were initially skeptical,” Bowsza said, because many had never seen a community leader offer the opportunity to get $10,000 “for the cost of filling out an application.”
Investing in the Community
Grant recipients used the funds in a variety of ways, including purchasing new equipment, facility improvements, buying personal protective equipment, wages, marketing and advertising, and scholarship programs.
One of the success stories that stuck out to Bowsza was a daycare that stayed open, at a financial loss for over a year, to care for the children of essential workers.
The owner wrote Bowsza and said the money from the grant was used to invest in playground upgrades and landscaping, and made a point to use East Windsor-based businesses to do so.
Bowsza described this story as “an absolute home run,” as the daycare was putting their money right back into the community, and the grant program elevated multiple businesses.
“You get the opportunity to have that ripple effect,” he said.
While East Windsor is one of the first communities in the state to fully implement this grant program, Bowsza encouraged others to reach out for guidance.
“Imitation is the highest form of flattery,” he said. “We have learned some lessons, and I would be very happy to share them with any other community that would be looking to do it."