By Joel Phelps
After much discussion, long pauses and feedback from a citizen, the Economic Development Corp. of Clark County approved Tuesday an incentives application for small business owners wishing to tap into a 1/2-cent sales tax collected for job growth.
The 15-member panel had a quorum of nine members for the hour-long meeting. The top matter of discussion was a proposed draft of an application for companies large and small seeking to receive EDCCC grants from the “new tax” money voters OK’d in a 2021 special election.
Whereas the old tax was geared at attracting large companies via six- and seven-figure incentives, the new tax has opened the doors for small businesses, with as few as one employee, to receive funding.
The EDCCC board will decide which companies receive grants, designating “at least” $50,000 each year to Category 1 applicants, or the small business sector. Those applicants must pay their employees at least state minimum wage, and have a business plan reviewed by the Small Business Technology and Development Center. Applications submitted to the private Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance may not guarantee receipt of a grant. The Alliance will review applications and make its recommendations to the EDCCC.
Before the wording of the application was approved, Lewis Shepherd said he had spoken with several citizens about the $50,000 figure, which he said was an issue because it wouldn’t be enough for a small business to pay their employees the state’s minimum $11/hour wages — another requirement set in the process. Wilma Gill pointed out that many employers only pay their workers the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour. Shepherd later recommended the figure be removed altogether. Ultimately, the board opted to include “at least” to the application’s wording.
Following board input, the outspoken Rev. Johnny Harris said capping the figure at $50,000 only added “difficult” stipulations on small business owners. He said also that small businesses would likely not apply for a grant that small because they wouldn’t “know all the ins and outs” of the application process. “Small businesses need some help,” he said. He voiced appreciation to the board for changing the language to the application.
J.L. Griffin, CEO of the EDCCC, said the intent of drafting the application was to “try to make it easier to help [business owners] in the county” apply for EDCCC grants. But, he noted, “You cannot make it too easy, and it’s against the law to just give money away.”
Roland Gosey, funeral home owner, asked for a concrete definition of economic development. He noted a barber shop owner wouldn’t pay his help by the hour; instead, the additional barber would be paid by the number of haircuts he gave in a shift. Gosey asked if the proposed application would allow a barber to receive funds. “Does this application process really speak to their need?”
Kevin Jester, EDCCC chair, said the decision would have to be made on a case-by-case basis. “I don’t think we can answer questions about whether particular applications would be approved based on a hypothetical situation … I think it puts us in a very unfair situation to ask us whether we would approve an application [that is not] in front of us.”
Jester and Gosey argued over the difference between qualifying and applying. “Just look at your own application,” Gosey said. “Applying is one thing, and qualifying is another.” Gosey added that, based on the drafted application, someone in the service sector wouldn’t bother applying because he wouldn’t qualify to apply.
Griffin intervened, questioning how the Alliance or EDCCC could police fraudulent applications. Using Gosey’s barber shop as an example, he said the shop owner could put in the application that he was purchasing a barber’s chair and pocket the grant funds. Griffin, who works in the logging industry, could request funds to purchase a new skidder for a logger but not hire the logger.
Board member Brian Kirksey said he has owned small business in Clark County. He called the application a “good start. I think it’s a way to create some business. It’s not going to be perfect, but I feel like we can come back and re-address some situations if we saw the need.” Kirksey made the motion to accept the application with the addition and omission of language discussed at the meeting. The motion carried unanimously.