The COVID-19 pandemic may have altered — but didn't slow — any development activities for Crawford County's leading economic development agency during 2020.

The pandemic merely caused the Economic Progress Alliance of Crawford County (EPACC) to increase efforts to help businesses in getting answers and financial assistance during the initial economic shutdown.

At Thursday's online annual meeting, Jim Becker, EPACC's executive director, said the agency fielded 112 loan inquiries and was able to submit 18 working capital loan applications to Pennsylvania within four days on behalf of local businesses. Those applications secured $1.6 million in state loans to keep critical manufacturing businesses going.

EPACC also was able to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a local working capital loan program for smaller businesses which got another $325,000 in loans to 13 other firms with loans of $25,000 each.

The agency also worked with Crawford County government in reviewing and underwriting 22 applications to the county's CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act-funded Community Development Block Grant program.

Becker said the EPACC has advocated with state officials at all levels on behalf of the county's restaurant industry, which has been hard hit by the pandemic.

The new state-funded COVID-19 Hospitality Industry Recovery Program (CHIRP) is rolling out with around $958,000 to help Crawford County's hospitality industry of hotels, motels, restaurants and taverns. Local grant guidelines are taking shape now in conjunction with the county so applications may be taken in March, according to Becker.

"We're going to do our best to get this money out to the street as quickly as possible," he said, calling the program much needed for the hospitality industry. "We're excited that money is going to get on the street."

The EPACC also transitioned its staff to full-time and hybrid work from home positions due to the pandemic while it continued to carry out other business activities.

Those activities meant continued development and operation of its various business parks; business outreach visits; assisting with conventional state loans to area businesses; and continuation of or aiding other development projects that are in various stages such as the Cochranton Community Services Complex and a senior housing project in Cochranton, Becker said.

In addition, the EPACC oversaw Conneaut Lake Park, the nonprofit amusement park. 

While the park wasn't able to open due to the pandemic, there has been a potential buyer found for all of its assets, Becker said. The EPACC acts as staff for Trustees of Conneaut Lake Park, the nonprofit corporation that oversees the park's operation.

A $1.2 million sales agreement is in place with a qualified potential buyer, Becker said. U.S. Bankruptcy Court for Western Pennsylvania has approved a public auction process of the park's assets. Court-approved financially qualified buyers will bid on the park during a scheduled public auction March 2 in Bankruptcy Court, Becker said. Any additional potential bidders are to submit financial information and an escrow deposit with the park's bankruptcy attorneys by today.

"This is the evolution of what the Progress Alliance had talked about all along," Becker said of selling off non-core assets, paying off 17 years worth of back taxes, and making improvements to get Conneaut Lake Park back into the private sector.

"The appropriate thing to do is now turn this over to the private sector and let somebody invest in this and start moving it forward to its next logical evolution within this," he said. "All of the deed restrictions (allowing for public access) remain."

Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.

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