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'Fast, simple, easy': Bank of North Dakota boosts coronavirus business aid

'Fast, simple, easy': Bank of North Dakota boosts coronavirus business aid

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Steve and Sandy Jacobson's bakery wasn't even a year old when the coronavirus pandemic struck North Dakota.

"We were pretty nervous about it because we're just starting," Sandy Jacobson said.

The couple's bank helped steer them toward assistance options, including a new Bank of North Dakota loan program. The nation's only state-owned owned bank has approved loans for hundreds of North Dakota businesses under two new programs authorized in April by the state's Industrial Commission.

Some officials believe the bank has given North Dakota a leg up in responding to the crisis.

"I definitely think that having the nation's only state-owned bank gives us a decided advantage over businesses in other states because we have that flexibility," Bismarck Mandan Chamber EDC President Brian Ritter said. "We just have one additional tool that may make the difference between a business making it through the outbreak, or not."

'It was easy'

The Brick Oven Bakery in downtown Bismarck endured Gov. Doug Burgum's restrictions to onsite dining and drinking last spring, which were lifted May 1 after six weeks. The bakery established a walk-up window for customers and didn't lose any of its 11 employees, to whom the Jacobsons offered free lunches, coffee and leftover pastries during the onsite closure.

"(We) just really kept in touch with our employees every single day to make sure they were doing OK and what we could do to help them through the crisis, basically," Jacobson said.

The bakery is now at half capacity, with outdoor and distanced seating, distanced queues, hourly sanitizing and employees wearing masks. Its window has stayed open, too.

"I would say that we're pretty much back to normal other than the seating and stuff, but as far as, like, sales and things like that, I think we're pretty much back to normal," Jacobson said. 

The Jacobsons' bank helped them secure a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan for their business, helping with rent and payroll.

Their bank also pointed them toward the Bank of North Dakota's Small Employer Loan Fund, which offers loans of up to $50,000 to businesses with 10 or fewer full-time employees. The state-owned bank approved the Brick Oven Bakery for $50,000.

Jacobson said the 1% interest loan can't be beat. It was the business's first time working with the Bank of North Dakota.

"It was fast. It was simple. Yeah, it was easy," she said. "I barely batted an eye, honestly. They kind of did everything for us."

'Plug that hole'

As of July 10, the SELF program had provided loans totaling more than $18 million to 537 businesses. The COVID-19 Partners Assisting in Community Expansion Recovery Program had provided more than $67.3 million to 82 businesses. The latter program offers up to $5 million for businesses with fewer than 500 employees, and up to $10 million to businesses with more than 500 employees.

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The SELF program is derived from $50 million of Bank of North Dakota capital. The COVID-19 PACE Recovery program is funded by $200 million in federal CARES Act aid.

North Dakota received $1.25 billion in aid from the economic rescue package, $930 million of which has been distributed.

The loans' application periods close Nov. 30. More information on the loan programs is available at bnd.nd.gov/business.

Bank President and CEO Eric Hardmeyer said the bank initially helped connect community banks, lenders and state officials with federal officials to facilitate federal coronavirus business aid, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, which helps small businesses with payroll costs.

Weekly phone calls included as many as 600 bankers throughout North Dakota on the line with U.S. Small Business Administration and state officials.

The Paycheck Protection Program has distributed 19,774 loans to North Dakota businesses, totaling more than $1.76 billion. The Washington Post reported in May that North Dakota small businesses topped other states in receiving program dollars, relative to the states' workforces. The program has an extended deadline of Aug. 8 for applications.

The pandemic has been "uncharted territory," Hardmeyer said, but the bank wasn't unprepared, having stepped in after past financial and natural disasters.

"I'll tell you that we have had experience, of course, dealing with financing or helping to assist through a crisis, whether it is the financial crisis back in 2008 or a weather-related crisis -- floods, tornadoes, that type of thing," the longtime bank executive said. "So we have had experience doing this for 20-25 years, and so the first thing that we acknowledged was that you have to let the federal programs do their thing."

The bank then took stock of what it could do for businesses that might still have needs.

"We wanted to plug that hole and make sure that those people got access to funding, absolutely," Hardmeyer said.

Unique asset

State and business officials laud the bank established in 1919 as unique asset for North Dakota. Hardmeyer said the bank has "quickness, nimbleness, flexibility" and strong relationships with community banks that create an advantage.

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"It becomes seamless," he said.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who led the bank from 1993 to 2000, said the institution was "very proactive" in organizing the lender calls. The bank well tailored its loan programs to "fill in around" the federal aid, he said.

"Small business is the backbone of our economy, both here in North Dakota and across the country, so it's really important that we help small businesses and remember the focus of that help is the worker," Hoeven said. "That's the key, is to try to make sure those workers get a paycheck, but then to keep them tied to those businesses so they can get up and going again as soon as possible."

Businesses each have specific needs as a result of the pandemic, which Ritter said underscores the importance of a range of assistance, including the bank's loan programs.

Jacobson said the SELF loan was "very helpful." The Brick Oven Bakery's one-year anniversary is Sept. 3. The bakery started offering cold beverages of iced coffees and iced teas this summer, in addition to its traditional breads, pastries, lunches and weekend breakfasts, all while practicing coronavirus health guidance.

"It's going well," she said.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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