Hospitality businesses in Susquehanna County have put to good use their part of $2.43 million in pandemic relief funds received as a result of a bill signed into law by Governor Tom Wolf earlier this year.
The county was allocated a total of $477,056 as part of a $145 million funding package creating the COVID-19 Hospitality Industry Recovery Program (CHIRP).
Signed into law by Wolf in February and administered by the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), county businesses applied for the grants and worked with the Towanda-based Progress Authority, which provides economic development technical assistance for businesses, to allocate the funds.
“I loved working with the Progress Authority,” said Penny Eldred, who runs the Rosemont Inn, a popular bed and breakfast in Montrose. “They were extremely helpful.”
Like many other businesses, the Rosemont Inn was forced the shutter in light of obvious health concerns during the height of COVID-19. “We lost staff. People weren’t coming. They were cancelling reservations,” Eldred said.
With the drop in revenue disaster loomed on the horizon as – although the rooms were empty – the lights had to stay bright, the water had to keep flowing and the heat had to stay on. “Even though you don’t have guests you still have to heat the place so the pipes don’t freeze,” Eldred explained.
Further complicating things was the fact that as she was paying out to keep the pipes from freezing, she was also reimbursing loyal customers who had faithfully made deposits on rooms from two years ago – before the onset of the pandemic.
“We are honoring deposits from two years ago,” Eldred said.
Of course, keeping the insurance up to date is also another concern, as with most businesses. “Especially insurance because insurance is probably out biggest cost,” Eldred said.
Now, thanks in part to an uptick in business, including profitable weddings, things are gradually getting back on track.
“We were so appreciative,” Eldred said. “I’m so happy the county commissioners selected the Progress Authority. Working with T Thompson was excellent. He is very knowledgeable and was able to tell us about other grants that were available.”
“The CHIRP was a needed and very appreciated boost,” she added.
The vice president of economic development at the Towanda-based Progress Authority goes by the first name of “T.” Everyone calls him that and he says that even if you call the Progress Authority and ask for him under the name his parents gave him, Thomas Thompson, they won’t know who to connect you to. But the local business owners now know who he is. He connects businesses with local lenders and helped facilitate the CHIRP program.
“When this first started, I sat in my chair and I said ‘What is that area going to look like when this is over?’” Thompson said. “Hotels are the ones. They got hammered because people can’t travel.”
What stands out to Thompson is the speed with which local business transformed themselves to accommodate patrons once the reality of the pandemic took hold last year.
“The fact that everyone transitioned so quickly is astounding. They handled it surprisingly well. It was a different take on their facility,” Thompson said.
“And they did it with an effectiveness that was completely unbelievable in my eye,” Thompson.
Bingham’s Family Restaurant, a Route 92 stop in Lenox, popular for its home cooked foods and baked good and its delicious filet mignon special, employed between 50 and 60 people before the pandemic struck.
Down to between 35 and 40, those employees continue to enjoy their jobs, in part buoyed by the CHIRP grant.
“Once the utilities were paid we were able to keep our employees,” said general manager Jennifer Wakalowski. She also shared the high praise for the Progress Authority. “They did a great job and we appreciate their hard work,” Wakalowski said.
Wakalowski said that business is now back up to about 80 to 90 percent of their normal levels.
The Main Street Café in Susquehanna serves a lot of liver and onions, haddock and 8 oz. hand-weighed burgers, says owner Kevin Setzer.
But, in the final analysis, his employees are what make his business, not the food.
During the pandemic, economics forced Setzer to dip into his own pocket to keep his employees. He has about 11 people working in his restaurant and wants to keep them on board. Then he heard about and applied for the CHIRP grant.
Setzer has calmly resumed serving up generous portions of lasagna, chicken and, of course, liver and onions.
“It is a good program,” Setzer said of the CHIRP grant program.
“It certainly was welcomed on their end. A lot of businesses had been negatively impacted by the COVID,” Thompson said of the CHIRP funding.
Certainly, the hospitality industry appreciated it, and Thompson said he hopes to see state come back and allocate funds to other segments of the business community.
Susquehanna County Commissioner Elizabeth “Betsy” Arnold touted the CHIRP program as a state program – administered by the counties – as an example of a state program which actually works.
“We were trying to help as many businesses throughout the county. It was our privilege and pleasure and the Progress Authority did a great job with this,” Arnold said.