Bolstered by Grants, Hard-Hit Hospitality Sector Now Seeks Reopening Timeline | Off Message

Bolstered by Grants, Hard-Hit Hospitality Sector Now Seeks Reopening Timeline


  • Oliver Parini for Keewaydin Foundation
  • Campers at Keewaydin
The nonprofit Keewaydin Foundation cancelled its summer camps last summer and sent refunds to everybody who had registered. The foundation, which counts on the camps for almost all of its income, lost $4.5 million in fees in 2020.

Things are looking up this summer. The foundation plans to run its boys’ and girls’ camps in Salisbury at 80 percent capacity. Thanks to $150,000 in state grants, more than $1 million from the federal Paycheck Protection program, and an array of private grants and donations, “We are pretty much whole right now,” said Keewaydin camp director Pete Hare. He noted that he’s not sure about the fate of the foundation’s camp in Canada, which won’t open should the border remain closed. But “if we’re able to open up camp this summer, we should be completely back on our feet,” he said.

A massive infusion of state and federal grant money last year appears to have helped small businesses survive, and in some cases even bolster aspects such as their web presence. That's based on anecdotal evidence, since nobody has yet fully analyzed how Vermont's small businesses have fared.

A new report shows Vermont spent $330 million last year on the business grants, which were administered by the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development. Businesses that proved they had suffered losses received up to $300,000.

More than 4,800 businesses received money from the commerce agency and the Tax Department, which shared the job of administering the grant programs, according to the report, released March 11. The commerce agency lists each Vermont business that received money, and how much, on its website.

The average amount received was almost $50,000, the agency said. The 314 nonprofit grantees made out slightly better than did the 2,475 for-profit ones. Nonprofits accounted for 11 percent of the grantees, but received 14 percent of the dollars.

More than 85 percent of the grant recipients had revenues of $1.5 million or less in 2019, the agency said; more than half had four employees or fewer. State Auditor Doug Hoffer is examining the administration of the grants and plans to release a report in early May.

Food and lodging businesses are generally acknowledged to have been hit hardest by the pandemic closures; many remain shuttered or have severely curtailed hours because of distancing restrictions and quarantine rules that keep out-of-state visitors away. A quarter of the grant recipients were in the hospitality business, and they received 42 percent of the money.

This year, with another $1 billion and change in discretionary relief headed to Vermont, businesses will have another chance at state grants. It’s not yet clear what that program will look like.

With so much money available, “it’s probably going to take until the end of the session to discuss this,” said Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein. Goldstein said she’d like this year’s grant programs to target businesses that weren’t eligible for federal relief such as the Paycheck Protection Program. The administration has already proposed as much for a separate $10 million appropriation for business grants that is working its way through the legislative process.

Lawmakers and the Scott administration are still trying to determine how the money from the latest federal relief package can be spent. But “a significant amount” of it will probably be available to the hospitality industry, Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Winham) said at a Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce event Monday.

“We are still learning what’s in the package,” said Balint, noting that it will be easier for lawmakers to make decisions this time around than it was last year because the timeline for spending the funds  extends to 2024.

“I think we can put together a package, relief that’s targeted toward tourism,” Balint said.

Tourism businesses, meanwhile, are focusing on the timeline for the return to normalcy and the removal of the quarantine requirements for out-of-state visitors. Those rules have already been relaxed for visitors who are fully vaccinated.

“Customers want to know what travel looks like in particular for the summer, and we can’t answer that fully for them yet,” said Sheri Baraw Smith, vice president of the Stoweflake Mountain Resort and Spa, which got the maximum $300,000 from the state last year. “We’ve been asking for a plan.”

For summer camps, too, there’s a lot riding on what happens in the next few weeks and months, said Hare. Keewaydin has taken registrations without knowing exactly what will be allowed, and has created a complex array of quarantine and testing protocols for its campers and even for the parents who drop them off.

“Most of the other New England camps have already been given the green light by their states,” he said.

Founded in Maine in in the early 1900s, Keewaydin is one of the oldest summer camps in the country. Its counterpart for girls, Songadeewin, was established in 1921. Families who have been associated with those camps for decades donated generously when the extent of the damage from the pandemic shutdowns started to become apparent last spring, said Hare.

“We can avail ourselves of our loyal alumni, who are able to help us, but other institutions may not have that,” he said. “I do worry about camps. If they aren’t able to open this summer, will they be able to continue in the future?”

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