ILEWISTON — The city of Lewiston has more than $1 million in COVID-19 relief to give out and, so far, only four takers.

Staff aren’t sure if the programs — one a grant for homeowners and renters, one a business loan that turns into a grant if a single job is created or retained — have too many hurdles, there’s not the need or simply not enough people know about them.

Across the river in Auburn, the city set aside $100,000 for pandemic-specific business aid. It’s all still sitting there.

“Everyone’s talking about how much help these businesses need, and we have all this money, and we haven’t really received any applicants yet,” Zachary Lenhert, Auburn’s community development manager, said.

Peter Flanders, one of the principals behind Sonder & Dram, used the funds to restart the Lisbon Street pub and save one employee whom he needed but couldn’t afford to bring back.

“The difference was originally less stress and saving a job,” Flanders said. “Now it is also helping sustain us while we have limited ability to earn — the governor’s extension on restaurant restrictions has not helped and has forced us to adjust yet again.”


Auburn’s funds came from the federal coronavirus relief bill; in Lewiston, it’s a mix of the relief bill and Community Development Block Grant.

“In response to COVID-19, we quickly looked at our revolving loan funds and what we could do to help businesses,” Misty Parker, Lewiston’s economic development manager, said. “At the time, we were doing a lot of outreach to the business community to see what their needs were, and because we were in a state of closure, many said, ‘I don’t need a loan, I need a grant.'”

The city retooled the program and pooled $830,000 to offer two tracks of aid: a microenterprise loan-to-grant for businesses with five or fewer employees for up to $15,000 and an economic development loan-to-grant for businesses with up to 75 employees for up to $25,000.

Companies demonstrating a pandemic hit can spend the funds on short-term operating expenses such as payroll, outdoor seating, cleaning products or personal protective equipment.

“We wanted to be able to be flexible to respond to those needs, and again provide just enough to help them weather the storm and do what we can,” Parker said. “If a business owner needed child care for one of their staff people so they could come back to work, if that child care is linked to that staff person being able to work for them, that’s an eligible expense under the microenterprise program.”

The programs are set up to either reimburse expenses or have the city pay vendors directly.


All three approved so far have been in food service. Two more businesses are in the process and six have been denied.

“Here’s the catch: Our intake process requires a lot of paperwork,” Parker said. “I think this has been one of the biggest barriers for our businesses, and we’ve reduced it as much as we can.”

Among the requirements are two years of tax returns, profit and loss statements, proof that the job created or saved is available to a person earning 80% or less of the median area income, and then, verifying that.

Michael Dostie, president of the Downtown Lewiston Association, said the feedback he’s hearing from business owners not pursing the program is that it “came down to some very cumbersome paperwork.”

“And that’s not any fault of the city,” he added. “That’s because it’s CDBG funding and it’s all required for use of that kind of funds.”

Auburn’s Lenhert has heard that, too.


“All of our programs, we need everyone’s tax information and we need to dot our i’s and cross our t’s,” he said. “My rebuttal on that is we’re about to potentially give you $7,500 that you don’t need to pay back, or $20,000 in the case of a small business.”

Lewiston has so far awarded $37,000 of $830,000. Auburn, none of its $100,000.

The city of Portland also pulled together a COVID-related business relief program with a mix of grants and loans from similar funding sources.

As of Thursday, it had awarded $15,000 of $783,027 to five applicants, according to Business Program Manager Nelle Hanig. The city’s business lending and granting board was due to consider another 20 applications, for $52,500, Thursday night.

Also in Lewiston: Residential relief

The city of Lewiston has additionally set aside $247,000 for COVID-19 related rent, mortgage relief and utility relief, hoping to help 75 households, according to Parker, and so far has seen a spotty interest in that new program, too.


Since the funds are through CDBG, the emergency income protection program is designed to help households earning 80% of the median area income or less, which is less than $55,900 for a family of four.

To be eligible, homeowners or renters need to have lost household income as a result of COVID-19, either losing a job or a reduction in hours, Parker said. The program is set up to cover the gap between previous and current income, up to $1,000 a month for three months and up to $500 for utilities over three months.

A household earning $3,000 a month before COVID-19 and now receiving $2,500 with any income and state and federal unemployment benefits, could be eligible for $500 a month.

It’s not tied to receiving or qualifying for any other social services.

Only two households have applied, Parker said. One was funded for $1,800 and the other didn’t qualify.

“We are not able to pay past-due mortgage or rent, it’s just for each month going forward for those three months,” she said. “Many of our homeowners, at all different ages, depending on family size, folks could very well fall within that 80% of area median income and not realize it. Many of our folks are working-class people that are doing everything right and something like COVID-19 could really threaten their stability, so we want to make sure that we’re doing what we can where we can.”

Again, there’s a fair amount of paperwork demonstrating the income gap and determining eligibility, but staff in General Assistance are able to help start the process, Parker said.

She believes people may be unaware of the program, gotten help initially from MaineHousing’s one-time $500 rental assistance or may not have a pronounced income gap until the additional $600 weekly federal unemployment benefit expires at the end of the month.

“I think a lot of people are going to start thinking about over the next few weeks that they may be able to pay their August mortgage or may be able to pay their rent for August, but then what happens next?” she said. “We recognize that the COVID-19 recovery is a bumpy road and that while there’s been great assistance in the early months, as we reopen and navigate what comes next, that we recognize there may be still challenges for our residents and wanted to identify areas that our funding could assist to ensure that there is some short-term assistance to keep people afloat.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.