A draft COVID-19 economic recovery plan was met Friday with skepticism by the Skagit County Board of Commissioners.

While the commissioners were seeking immediate action items to support struggling businesses, the plan presented by Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County CEO John Sternlicht focused more on long-term economic development.

The commissioners tasked Sternlicht’s organization with creating a plan to spend $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, with the intent that this funding would provide help for businesses.

His presentation included plans to leverage the money into a loan fund for small businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs, to explore ways to bring underrepresented groups into skilled labor jobs and to attract manufacturing or agriculture companies with ready-built sites that would accommodate their work.

With housing scarcity raised as a barrier to employment, Sternlicht included a proposal to create a nonprofit that would work with cities and the county to “get everyone rowing in the same direction” on policy.

Commissioner Lisa Janicki said her expectation was that Sternlicht’s team would talk with business owners, unemployed workers, chambers of commerce and workforce development experts to identify how the pandemic harmed businesses, and what $1 million could do right now to stem the bleeding.

Janicki said Sternlicht’s presentation appeared to lack input from these stakeholders, and without evidence or testimony she was reluctant to support his proposals.

“I know there’s people hurting out there, and I don’t have any clearer view through my windshield now,” she said.

Sternlicht said his ideas were less aimed at smaller rapid interventions than “directed at resiliency from COVID and other shocks that may come down the road.”

Commissioner Ron Wesen wondered whether a loan fund would offer fixes to the issues businesses are encountering, rather than just pushing their eventual failure a few years down the road.

He also questioned a focus on attracting new businesses when, as Sternlicht said earlier, low housing supply keeps new businesses from locating here.

Sternlicht said he will review data on other communities that have used loan funds as a COVID-19 recovery tool.

Commissioner Peter Browning said he wanted to see a greater focus on business education.

Browning, who formerly led the Burlington Chamber of Commerce, said he’s spoken with business owners who say they will have to completely change the way their work is done post-pandemic, but say they need guidance on how to chart their futures.

Kayla Schott-Bresler, deputy county administrator, said she will touch base with Sternlicht soon to discuss the next steps.

— Reporter Brandon Stone: bstone@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2112, Twitter: @Brandon_SVH

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