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Wisconsin Economic Development Leaders Try To Adjust To COVID-19, George Floyd Protests

Chuck Quirmbach
Signs outside the King Commerce Center on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Milwaukee.

Wisconsin economic development leaders say they're still about 10 days from accepting applications for $75 million in federal grants to small businesses hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. But state officials also say they're working on the right message for independent-minded Wisconsin.

Gov. Tony Evers announced the We're All In grant program more than two weeks ago. Evers says 30,000 qualifying small firms will be able to use cash grants of $2,500 to assist with the cost of business interruption during the pandemic.

The money can also go for health and safety improvements, wages and salaries, rent, mortgages, and inventory. Applications for the money will be accepted starting June 15, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation CEO Missy Hughes told the WEDC Board Wednesday.

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But Hughes also says she's thinking beyond the grant program to try to reduce the chance of businesses, employees and customers contributing to another surge in COVID-19 cases. She says Wisconsin is not big on mandates.

"Wisconsin is a state that doesn't require its motorcyclists to wear helmets. So, we're a pretty independent crowd and we need the decision to be made by the citizens to do the social distancing and wear masks. That's our conversation that's going to happen from a social aspect, not from a government edict aspect," she said.

Hughes says the campaign will highlight businesses that are doing a good job at reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Also, she says 1,100 small businesses have applied for a separate federally-funded program. The program is aimed at helping companies owned by ethnic minorities, and 1,000 qualifying firms can get $2,000 apiece. Thelma Sias, an African American who's a WEDC board member from Milwaukee, told the meeting that program and others should be part of a new framework for the state agency.

"When someone asks us when we're making these decisions, how well are we supporting minority-owned firms? How well have we made the ask to bring them to the table, to make the ask about what we're doing, and how well it's working for them? How well are we doing with women-owned firms?” Sias said.

Hughes replied that WEDC needs to do better, and referred to the protests across Wisconsin and the U.S. since George Floyd died while in police custody in Minneapolis.

"I've been thinking a lot about it in the last few days because a lot of what we're seeing is the result of economic disparity. And we have to ask ourselves, what's our role in that, and what's our role in solving that?” Hughes said.

Sias thanked Hughes for the response.

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