Grant aims to help small businesses

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Small businesses hiding in the rural swaths of Mississippi willhave a chance to consider money-saving upgrades once a Brookhavenimprovement agency begins paying for their energy consultationexpenses.

Southwest Mississippi Resource Conservation and Development, anon-profit group designed to spur economic growth in rural areas,has been awarded a $99,990 grant through the U.S. Department ofAgriculture’s Rural Business Enterprise Grant program, funded bythe federal economic stimulus bill.

SWMRC&D Program Director Bennie Hutchins said the grant,when coupled with a previous grant of the same amount fromdifferent sources, will give the organization almost $200,000 tohelp pay energy efficiency consultants to inspect rural businessesand recommend energy-saving technology upgrades, like new heating,cooling and lighting systems.

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“The energy audit … is a review of their business to identifyareas they can save money and to calculate the payback period, thereturn on investments for installing each one of those retrofits,”Hutchins said.

Hutchins said the grant funds would not be used to helpbusinesses purchase new, energy-efficient products, but the resultsof the energy audits it will fund can be used to apply for furthergrants that will help install such products.

“An energy audit is no good unless someone takes it and acts onit,” he said.

With the grant funding just awarded this week, Hutchins said itwould probably be another two months before SWMRC&D beginstaking applications from businesses. A rural business, as definedby the organization, is one that is located outside an incorporatedarea of 50,000 people or greater and employs less than 50people.

Chain stores and residential operations are not eligible for theprogram, Hutchins said, but any other privately owned smallbusinesses – from grocery stores to beauty shops to dairy farms -may apply. He said the money would likely be used to pay 95 percentof businesses’ consulting costs, with the other 5 percent paid bythe business, though the final split has yet to be determined.

Though the organization has not yet begun work on the program,Hutchins said interested business owners may drop their names inthe hat by e-mailing their full contact information

The new grant will apply to 56 counties, while the previousgrant is designated for 22 counties formerly declared disasterareas after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Together, the grants willfund energy consultation in 78 counties, leaving out only DeSoto,Hinds, Madison and Rankin counties – counties that are in theJackson and Memphis areas. Even though not named in the grant’slist, Hutchins said the rural areas of those counties would stillbe eligible.

Hutchins hopes news of the grant will spur rural businesses intotaking advantage of the new program.

Some of SWMRC&D’s older programs have had little success, hesaid. He said the Rural Energy for America Program, which funds 25percent of a client’s cost for installing energy efficiencyimprovements, has been in operation for six years and picked up itsfirst participating business only in 2009.

“(But) we’ve not been able to offer this audit before,” Hutchinssaid.

SWMRC&D board chairwoman Martha Watts said the organizationis making determined efforts to spread the word about the energyaudit program.

“Everyone should be interested in this – we’re all small, ruralbusinesses, we’re all in small areas,” she said. “A lot of timeswhen you say government grant, people are nervous about it. Theythink it’s a lot of red tape and paperwork, but that’s what we’rehere for. It does not hurt to try.”