New dance moves have been needed at Allegro School of Dance.
“The lobby is empty, and the parents are waving to the kids as they go in,” said Janet Johnson, founder and owner of the Rochester school. “The little ones are wearing masks and dancing in their spaces.”
Dance teachers have gotten creative in choreographing ways to let dancers of all ages move throughout the classrooms while maintaining safe distances. Classes have been shortened to allow added sanitizing between sessions.
Where parents once watched performances on lobby TV screens, Johnson is now providing online links to be used on cell phones from the parking lot.
While new technology and practices have allowed the school to remain open as the coronavirus pandemic persists, Johnson said student numbers have declined, even while offering online classes.
“There is definitely a decrease in participation because of COVID-19 and how people internalize that,” she said, pointing out that some parents pulled students due to health fears and others didn't want to expose their children to mandatory temperature checks and mask usage.
“It’s such a vast difference of opinions,” she said.
The result is added costs and reduced income, which is why Johnson said financial help has been critical.
Allegro School of Dance has received a $25,000 grant through Olmsted County’s Small-Business Relief Grant program, as well as utility assistance through Rochester Public Utilities.
Both efforts were funded through a local portion of $150 billion in federal relief distributed to cities, counties and other local government entities as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
Rochester received $8.8 million, dedicating nearly $2 million to various targeted economic relief efforts. Olmsted County received $19.1 million, which is expected to provide approximately $4.3 million in grants to small businesses and $660,000 million in similar support to area nonprofits.
Olmsted County, with the help of Rochester Area Economic Development Inc., is accepting a second round of applications, with the hope of having all its dedicated small-business funding distributed by Nov. 6.
Sean Williams, RAEDI’s small-business consultant, said the county has lowered the threshold for approval of grants, which have dropped from a maximum of $25,000 to $15,000, with approximately $1.17 million available.
He said applications, which are due by Sunday, indicate the program is on target to distribute the entire amount with the second round.
Natalie Victoria, co-owner of Victoria’s Ristorante and Wine Bar and Rochester’s two Tap House locations, said she’ll likely apply for help in the second round after an apparent misunderstanding kept her from seeking a grant when the program launched.
Williams said confusion about programs is common, especially when city and county efforts were launched with funds received months into the pandemic.
“We had three or four grant programs going online at the same time, so there was a lot of confusion due to that,” he said.
Five blocks south of Victoria’s, Pasquale Presa was able to secure a $25,000 grant through the county program for his restaurant, Pasquale’s Neighborhood Pizzeria.
He said he opted to seek the help at the encouragement of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce. As a result, he also found support in a variety of other city grants, including help with utilities through RPU and a grant that used federal funds to support businesses with Rochester licenses.
“The little help they gave us also helps us get ready for the winter, because September was not good,” he said.
Another city grant, the Keep it Local grant administered by Rochester Downtown Alliance, helped pay for a locally purchased freezer used to shift the business into the frozen pizza market through local Hy-Vee stores.
Designed to encourage partnerships between Rochester businesses, the program funded with CARES Act dollars used $225,000 in the latest round to help 30 of the 115 businesses that applied.
Each business was required to use the funds to purchase a product or service locally, and applications were judged by panels of people outside the RDA.
Eight of the 30 grantees ended up purchasing services from Fagan Studios, which is using the opportunity to overcome lost rentals at its Broadway Avenue gallery space.
“We’re all looking to pivot,” owner Shawn Fagan said. “People know Fagan Studios for high school, family and commercial portrait photographers, but we know enough in other areas that we are able to pivot a little more and serve other directions on the commercial side.”
As a result, the business is taking on photo and video work, as well as some website design for grant recipients as varied as the Ronald McDonald House, Chinese Chin Express and Refashion Consigned Furniture and Clothing.
Additionally, Fagan said he and his wife, Michelle, have been constantly searching for potential funding since the pandemic hit Rochester.
STILL SEEKING SUPPORT
Victoria said she’s doing the same, along with her Tap House partner, Christine Stahl, but they’ve seen mixed results and believe the city needs to do more.
“They are taking money given to them to give to us, but where is their money?” Victoria asked. “They haven’t laid anybody off; they haven’t made tough decisions. That’s the business owner aspect of it.”
Rochester Assistant City Administrator Terry Spaeth said the city is limited in some of it’s spending of city funds.
“There’s only so much you can do under statutory requirements,” he said, adding that city operations have faced reduced revenue with cuts in all departments and plans to hold the 2021 tax levy at the 2020 level.
Victoria’s and the two Tap House locations have qualified three city grants through the program catering to license holders, but the owners are still waiting to receive the total amount.
Christiaan Cartwright, Rochester’s license examiner, said some of the pay out is likely being processed.
Additionally, he said all license holders approved for grants can expect to see a second check, which will include an approximate 50 percent increase to the grants, partly because the entire $500,000 set aside for the program wasn’t claimed.
With 300 or so eligible businesses, Cartwright said approximately half applied for grants that were calculated based on the cost of a license, but not tied directly to the expense,
The result led to grants of $675 for non-liquor licenses to nearly $5,000 once the added funds were included.
Cartwright said the city’s program wasn’t created to be a wide-ranging effort, with more money –$750,000 – targeted to utility relief and additional funds used to support outdoor dining options and other programs designed to help businesses throughout the city. He said city officials were aware the county was dedicating more to a grant program tied to the federal funds.
Victoria said the added pressure related to the upcoming winter months will make it more difficult for many businesses, and added that support to ensure they can keep doors open would be welcome.
“I don’t think any business is asking to be made whole again,” she said.
'Application fatique' sets in
Two Tap House locations are receiving assistance through the RPU effort, but Victoria opted to not apply for Victoria’s, since she rents the space at the intersection of West Center Street and First Avenue, which made the application process difficult.
Cartwright and Williams said they’ve seen signs of “application fatigue” among business owners, which is likely reducing the numbers that apply for all possible grants.
Williams said he’s been encouraging people to access the Small Business Development Center at 1926 Collegeview Road if help is needed to navigate the process.
“There is a lot of incorrect information going around or lack of understanding,” he added.
At Allegro School of Dance, Johnson said she understands the struggles of her fellow business owners, and the unknown linked to the pandemic makes things worse.
“The longer it goes on," she said, "the harder it gets.”