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Community response to COVID-19 — Saint Paul

Key takeaways

  • Direct financial support to businesses and families
  • Augment city resources with donations from foundations, corporations, and individuals
  • Expedite program creation and fund disbursement

Saint Paul Bridge Fund Program sustains businesses and community members

A local business served by the Saint Paul Bridge Fund Program in Minnesota.
Sweatshop Health Club, a business served by the Saint Paul Bridge Fund Program | Photo: Tom Leighton

When Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed an executive order closing bars and restaurants in response to COVID-19, Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and interim Community Development Director Kristin Guild were acutely aware of the profound effect the closures would have on businesses and families. Within 24 hours, they agreed the city would mobilize to provide interim financial support to both businesses and community members. The initiative needed to be a grant program with minimal paperwork requirements and rolled out as quickly as possible. The program’s intent was to sustain businesses and households until state and federal resources became available — hence its name Saint Paul Bridge Fund. 

The program design took operational insights from the Ready for Rail Program, which provided resources to small businesses along University Avenue during the disruption of Metro Green Line construction between 2012 and 2014.

Mayor Carter created a sense of urgency for city staff by saying he wanted the program to be the fastest deployment of business resources in the nation. He immediately reached out to the Knight Foundation and Saint Paul and Minnesota Foundation, which led to collaboration and financial commitments within a week.

With the mayor’s encouragement, $1 million was redirected by the Saint Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) from the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund to support low-income families that had lost jobs. Funds were provided to families in the form of $1,000 grants to cover one month’s rent. Another $2.3 million was allocated to support local businesses by using funds previously budgeted for city economic development programs. The business grants were $7,500 — an amount intended to cover roughly a month of small business expenses, based on consultation with small business experts.

City staff, along with the Saint Paul and Minnesota Foundation, set up a GiveMN.org donation website, which allowed donors to easily contribute to the campaign. Contributions were made by foundations, companies, and individuals ranging from $10 to $400,000.

City governments are complex organizations, and one challenge of the Bridge Fund Program was prioritizing the initiative across multiple departments, each of which had preexisting responsibilities and priorities. To encompass the volume of applications received for review, as well as subsequent fund disbursement, the city leveraged the systems strength and staffing capacity of people across the organization with expertise in policy and program development, IT, business processes, finance systems, and social services. By the time the program was in full swing, 10 departments and more than 100 city staff were involved, many working full time on Bridge Fund activities for several weeks. The Saint Paul and Minnesota Foundation played a key partnership role as a fiscal agent for program donations and provided valuable fundraising expertise.  

Campaign success story

Bridge Fund Program applications were accepted April 8 to 19, 2020. The Saint Paul HRA seeded the fund with $3,250,000. Other donors, which included foundations, individuals, and businesses with ties to the City of Saint Paul, contributed $865,000.

Grants were disbursed to recipients in late April through mid-May.

A Bridge Fund grant of $1,000 was provided to 1,265 families who were selected by lottery from more than 5,200 eligible families who applied. Sixty-four percent of families were from areas of concentrated poverty in which 50 percent or more of residents were people of color. Eligible families had a minor child at home, earned a pre-pandemic income of lower than 40 percent of the Metropolitan Area Median Income, and experienced a significant loss of income due to COVID-19.

A Bridge Fund grant of $7,500 was provided to 380 small businesses that were selected by lottery from more than 2,000 eligible businesses that applied. Thirty-seven percent of businesses were located in areas of concentrated poverty in which 50 percent or more of residents were people of color. Eligible businesses were independent retailers and restaurants with pre-pandemic annual gross revenues of less than $2 million, and experienced significant revenue impact due to COVID-19.

Who can you follow up with for more information about this project?

Hannah Burchill, marketing and PR manager, planning and economic development, City of Saint Paul, (651) 266-6575, hannah.burchill@ci.stpaul.mn.us

Author(s)

Tom Leighton, economic development specialist, Stantec

Reviewed in 2020

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