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House panel OKs bill for businesses affected by spill

A House committee on Wednesday gave quick approval to legislation designed to provide financial relief to small businesses in West Virginia that lost income after last week's chemical spill.

Meanwhile, area organizations want to help Charleston businesses bounce back after being forced to close.

"About a day into the chemical leak we realized it was going to have a pretty heavy economic impact in our community," said East End Main Street Director Ric Cavender. "It's just reminding people that our local businesses and workers have been suffering through this."

The House bill that advanced Wednesday is the first taken up by a legislative committee that addresses the fallout from the spill and "do not use" water order.

"This bill gives a suggested roadmap for recovery for these businesses," said Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, who heads the House Committee on Small Business, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development.

The bill (HB4175) suggests that small businesses could apply for grants, or low- and no-interest loans. Businesses also might be able to defer payment of payroll taxes and consumer sales tax collections to the state.

The bill stipulates that "only the most vulnerable of businesses should be eligible" for state-funded financial assistance.

The legislation directs the governor and Division of Homeland Security to set up emergency rules for helping small businesses. The bill doesn't define "small business" - what size of company would qualify. Nor does the legislation set a monetary cap on financial relief, or say how the program would be funded.

"This bill doesn't go into specifics," Skaff said. "It allows those agencies that deal with these things to develop those parameters. We leave it up to them how they want to administer it."

Skaff said most businesses' insurance plans don't cover income losses caused by disasters. He said restaurants and hair salons - businesses that use a lot of water -- were especially hard hit by the water crisis.

"The business owners ... are struggling," Skaff said. "You take one weekend out of a month, and it's a huge hit." 

Skaff is co-owner of the Vandalia Grille in downtown Charleston, which has filed a lawsuit against Freedom Industries, the company where the chemical leaked, and West Virginia American Water.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant promised an expedited review of the emergency rules, if the bill passes. Tennant said she already has fielded calls from small business owners asking about emergency loans.

"I'm with you, hand in hand, to get this evaluated as quickly as possible," Tennant told lawmakers at Wednesday's committee meeting. 

If passed and signed by the governor, the legislation would take effect immediately.

"There's a lot of need out there," said Delegate Bob Ashley, R-Roane. "People have suffered."

House Speaker Tim Miley, who established the small business committee last year, said the bill was designed to help businesses forced to close during the state of emergency. The legislation is expected to sail through the House.

"A lot of small businesses during certain times of the year will have cash flow problems, so an event like this water crisis can be devastating," said Miley, D-Harrison. "This will provide a safety net to help them pay their bills and stay in businesses."

Cavender, the East End Main Street director, and his team immediately started working on crafting a campaign that they said would normally take about nine months to implement. But, in this case, it has to be a few days.

The Rehydrate East End Getting Back to Business after the Aquapocalypse campaign will run from Friday through Jan. 31, with more than 40 businesses committed to participating.

Every business will offer some type of promotion. The public radio show Mountain Stage will offer patrons $10 off a ticket purchase when they present a receipt for an East End business.

The campaign is about standing in solidarity with local business owners and workers, Cavender said. "Everybody is stepping up and doing something," he said.

Across town, West Side Main Street is promoting its businesses with its Eat West, Shop West, Go West Getting West Side Businesses Back in the Flow event next week.

"West Side Main Street constantly strives to ensure the growth of our local businesses, and in this time of need, we are developing strategies to assist those establishments impacted by the recent chemical spill," said West Side Main Street Director Stephanie Johnson.

The Charleston Area Alliance launched Back to Business Charlie West this week to help connect businesses and customers.

The campaign stretches from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to actual shops donning stickers and posters, letting customer know it's back to business.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869. Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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