• Joseph F. Berenato

Hammonton Revitalization Corporation receives $184K state grant

HAMMONTON—On December 2, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) announced $2.6 million in Neighborhood Preservation COVID-19 Relief Grants to 19 municipalities participating in the Neighborhood Preservation Program (NPP) in a press release.


Of that amount, Hammonton—through the Hammonton Revitalization Corporation (HRC)— received $184,300 according to the release.  The HRC is the parent corporation for MainStreet Hammonton.


According to a press release, the grants aim to “promote the continued recovery and revitalization of NPP communities from the COVID-19 crisis by providing funding for eligible coronavirus response activities with a special emphasis on supporting impacted small businesses.”


“The grant funding will be used to help these neighborhoods, which are particularly vulnerable to the crisis, recover faster by investing in their small businesses and in activities meant to draw people to live, work and visit these places,” Lt. Governor Sheila Y. Oliver, who serves as DCA Commissioner, said in the release.


The release stated that the funds were only awarded to municipalities that have a “current, approved Neighborhood Preservation Program Implementation Plan through the local government or an NPP partner nonprofit organization. At least 60 percent of the funding is for business uses and must be distributed to small businesses located in their NPP neighborhood district boundaries with other funding dedicated to district-wide improvements that benefit both the local business and residential communities.”


According to the Neighborhood Preservation Program (NPP) Strategic Implementation Plan adopted via the approval of Resolution No. 050-2020 by town council on April 27, the area designated as the Downtown Hammonton Neighborhood Preservation Program (NPP) District encompasses both the MainStreet Hammonton Program Area and Downtown Art & Entertainment District.


“The primary road that runs directly through the district is State Highway Route 54 (known locally as Bellevue Avenue and 12th Street.) Other streets that border the NPP District include: Grand Street, Orchard Street and Peach Street. The District extends just beyond Third Street and Central Avenue as well,” the plan states.

Approved uses of the grant funds in Hammonton include grants to small businesses for rent/mortgage; districtwide parklets, outdoor dining and other open-air enhancements; and a public information sound system for public health announcements and marketing, the release said.


The grants may only be used for eligible costs incurred between March 1, 2020 and December 30, 2020 and must be fully expended by December 30, according to the release.


According to MainStreet Hammonton’s Executive Director, Cassie Iacovelli, the grant was a collaborative effort. The initial grant writing was done by town advocate James Donio, and the administration of the grant was handled by Iacovelli, HRC President Richard Rehmann, Economic Vitality chairperson Jason Michelini and HRC board member Jim Bacon.


“We were working with the Economic Impact Committee from the town, and we as a group had discussed that there was a good potential—a good feeling—that we were going to be positioned well for this particular grant. In that first meeting, we were trying to figure out how to reach our businesses in the NPP district, and how do we make sure we’re getting the information, we’re positioning ourselves to get the money into the hands of businesses and not missing other opportunities that might become available with other grant programs down the road,” Iacovelli said.


Iacovelli said that the decision was made to draft a letter with a preliminary questionnaire from both MainStreet Hammonton and the Greater Hammonton Chamber of Commerce.


“There was an initial questionnaire that we sent to everybody before we even knew that we got the grant in the first round of this, knowing that in this particular pocket of money there would only be people within the NPP district, which are predominately the MainStreet district.


To be able to just be eligible, you had to take that first step,” Iacovelli said.


Once the grant was awarded, the questionnaire provided information to help with its disbursal, she added.


“One of the questions on that particular questionnaire was for people to rank themselves—they were directed to go to the town COVID-19 website and fill out this questionnaire—on a scale of 1 to 5, how do you rank yourself as far as staying in business? One was, ‘I’m going to be OK,’ and five was, ‘If I don’t get funding, I’m going to close soon;’ it was a range of questions ... We went through the whole list and knew who was initially eligible,” Iacovelli said.


Iacovelli said that there were also disqualifying criteria that had to be considered.


“If they had received N.J. EDA (New Jersey Economic Development Authority) money in Phase I or Phase II, they were not eligible. This is why it was so complicated. There were preliminary criteria, and one of the reasons we were pushing this was that if any of our businesses had applied for N.J. EDA Phase III money, and had received it, they would not have been eligible for this NPP money. However, if they had been approved for the NPP grant program prior to getting a N.J. EDA Phase III award, they could get it. We were trying to be ahead of the curve and get as much money as possible. There was a sense of urgency, because the turnaround for this money was that you had to be able to give it out and you also had to be able to show documentation by December 30,” she said.


The entire process, Iacovelli said, was surprisingly quick and successful.


“Our actual application went in on October 7, and I think our official grant came in on October 15. They were looking to get it out, and we kicked it in immediately. We were able to notify people on November 2 that they received the grant money that they did ... I’m happy to say that half the people who applied, we met their need that they documented. The other, we were very, very close to helping most people at a very high level. We got those checks out immediately,” she said.


Hammonton’s ability to disburse the funds in so expedient a fashion did not go unnoticed by state officials.


“Initially, we received $164,300 ... I was notified from the state that we did it so quickly and we were so efficient—they couldn’t believe that we had our checks and our notifications out—that they called and said that they had more money from a town that wasn’t able to distribute as quickly and efficiently. Did we want another $20,000? Sure! We’ll take it! That was a real plus for us, and we got that two weeks ago,” Iacovelli said.


Iacovelli said that with the additional funds, they were able to identify two more businesses in need of rent or mortgage relief.


“In total, we were able to distribute to 27 businesses a wide range of amounts of money, depending on their needs—some people we covered the months of November and December, some people we covered three to five months of rent,” she said.


This has been a benefit, Iacovelli said, both for the business owners and their landlords.


“We were able to also meet the needs of landlords who have been enormously generous. Landlords that have helped us keep the town going were surprised that they were getting the money; they didn’t even expect it, and they were very, very grateful. The business owners had this weighing on them, and this was an opportunity for them to be able to get this into the hands of their landlords and have that off of their shoulders,” she said.


Action Travel was one such business, according to Sharon Magee.


“I felt that it was a true blessing to me. I had been falling behind on some of the months going by, starting from May until this month. I started to pay half-month’s rent, just to show some initiative that we’re here and we plan on staying here. But, as time went by, I realized that, in the travel industry, time is coming to a standstill. When the grant money came in, I thought, ‘This is hope. I’m going to present this to the landlord, and maybe it will help at least get me through until the beginning of the year.’ That’s what we have done,” Magee said.


Magee said that the grant money could not have come at a better time.


“I was feeling so stressed at that time that I thought it was time to walk out of those doors for the very last time. That was about three days before I got the approval for the grant. It felt like it was a message—you really have to stay and you really have to fight, Sharon—so that’s what I did. I’m going to continue, and, every time I get a little depressed, I’m going to look back over that grant letter. That’s my positive outlook. Things will look up,” she said.


Susan Vitrano of Bellevue Bagel Café concurred with Magee.


“It’s helped us out tremendously. My husband Frank and I live in Hammonton, and we’ve had this business for 10 years here. We love our town and we want to stay, so it’s a big help for us. It’s a wonderful idea to help the small business like ourselves, to keep us going in the town. We appreciate it so much, and hopefully they keep us in mind, as things are not really improving much until they let us open up and people get their confidence back. Right now, it seems like people are scared again, and they’re staying away again. I’m hoping things turn around after the new year, but you don’t know,” Vitrano said.


Dan Borrelli of Chimney Rustic Ales noted that his brewery had not been opened very long before it was forced by government mandate to close, making bill-paying—including rent—exceedingly difficult.


“The grant has greatly decreased our overhead for a couple of months and gave us some breathing room to catch up on some other outstanding bills. We opened just before this pandemic. We were open for 64 days and were shut down for 207. Without the income from our tasting room, the bills were adding up. The grant has given us some wiggle room to catch up on some bills and stay afloat and stay alive through a period where we literally had no ability to sell the only product we make,” Borrelli said.


The grant stipulates that 60 percent of the funds go to businesses in need. Iacovelli explained how the total funds are being spent.


“On the first round, we put a big chunk into public information sound system, we obviously had to put $100,000 to businesses and our choice, as a town, was to assist with rent relief, and then we also used the remainder of that initial money to purchase 28 outdoor heaters. Outdoor heaters were given, because our thought process was that COVID-19 is coming back, they’re going to start shutting things down. We were able to keep buying outdoor heaters, and we’ve given them out to as many places as we can that have outdoor eating capacity ... In the second round—with 60 percent going to businesses—we are going to build one more parklet, and we are going to give to an outdoor gathering spot or we might be doing outdoor signage for curbside and takeout dining in a consistent way,” she said.


Iacovelli noted that Borrelli will be involved with the construction of the second parklet, though a location has not yet been determined. Borrelli, for his part, noted how much the current parklet has benefitted his business.


“The day we opened that parklet it paid for itself. It allowed us to serve beer out of our facility before indoor dining was allowed, for several months. Without that parklet, we would have absolutely gone under. Outdoor dining was approved in June, and indoor dining wasn’t approved until September, so we had several months where we had the ability to sell beer that we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” he said.


Borrelli also commented on the heaters he was provided due to funds from the grant.


“With the weather, very few people want to sit outside in the freezing cold. We had an opportunity to jump on a grant for heaters, and it’s been helping us keep our doors open, for sure ... It’s been a lifesaver. Without MainStreet, I think a lot of businesses would be suffering even more than they already are. It’s been great for us and great for the town,” he said.


Iacovelli said that one of the only drawbacks to the grant is that it is limited to those within the NPP district, but that work continues to find other funds.


“The Economic Impact Committee continues to search and seek and will be aggressive if other, more town-wide initiatives come our way,” she said.