Clockwise from top left, The Image Flow’s Stuart Schwartz, FitWise Pilates owner Ronda Priestner, Juice Girl’s Karen Olson, WIGT’s Megan Acio and Ultimate Fitness owner Randy Green. Courtesy images.

Like many of us – check that, all of us – over the past many weeks amidst the COVID-19 crisis, WIGT Printing owner Megan Acio was “feeling defeated,” a result of a potent series of gut punches, from having to furlough her employees and seeing most of her print jobs vanish to even scarier personal concerns, including her mother having a heart attack (she recovered) and her grandmother spending time in the emergency room with a non-COVID-19-related respiratory infection (she’s also on the mend).

“The women in my family are tough as nails,” Acio says.

Acio applied via the federal PPP and EIDL programs but hasn’t gotten a response yet. And then a modest-yet-timely $1,000 direct cash grant arrived via the Mill Valley Chamber’s COVID-19 MV Business Fund.

“That grant, with such a quick response to relief, gave me a nudge in the right direction, giving me that ‘I can make it through this’ attitude,” Acio says. “When I opened the letter from the Chamber, tears of gratitude filled my eyes. It was like a huge hug from our community during a devastating time.”

In just 20 days since the Chamber launched the fund via GoFundMe to generate as many $1,000 direct cash grants to local businesses as possible, Mill Valley residents have stepped up beyond expectations, raising more than $77,000, including a recent infusion of $15,000 via the County of Marin, and thus funding at least 77 grants. More than 45 of those recipients have already received their grants, and many more are on the way in the coming days.

Ultimate Fitness owner Randy Green says he used the grant to pay some outstanding bills as well as the purchase of touchless faucets and other items to minimize the touching of surfaces that will come in handy for clients when they reopen.

Stuart Schwartz’s The Image Flow community photography hub on Miller Ave. was among them. Schwartz says the overhead costs of operating a 6,300-square-foot space are high in the best of times. But with vastly reduced revenue at the moment, with employees furloughed and the space shuttered, he calls this moment “deadly.”

The Image Flow was forced to cancel all of its spring and early summer workshops – its busiest workshop season – and beyond Zoom instruction by appointment, some print orders and scanning and reproduction work, business has dried up.

“Every dollar counts at the moment and what the Chamber has managed to do is way, way beyond the call of duty,” Schwartz says. “The speed at which the funds were distributed was how we wish everyone would pay – the Chamber could not have been more efficient.”

Schwartz lamented the widespread reports of stimulus funding ending up in the hands of large and even publicly traded companies who had access to other forms of capital, as well as the series of hiccups at launch

“The real point is Main Street America is made up of mom and pop stores – these businesses deserve better,” he says.

For Juice Girl owner Karen Olson, proximity to Tam High has long meant a booming, dependable rush of students throughout the school year. But with the significantly shortened school year, that dependability disappeared, and she linked up with Dine11Marin and Kylie Frame’s Feed the Frontlines Marin to both keep her business going, albeit at vastly reduced sales volumes and to support frontline workers. 

In a dose of irony, Olson learned that she received the MV Biz Fund grant on the same day the website for U.S. Bank crashed as she navigated the PPP process. “Every little bit helps these days!” she says of the grant via the Chamber. I wouldn’t want to be sheltering in place anywhere else in the world. I love our little town and all of the wonderful people who live here.”

Like many nimble entrepreneurs, Ronda Priestner shifted her FitWise Pilates studio downtown to a virtual operation, to the extent possible, soon after the first shelter in place order. She calls the grant “a blessing” that will assist with payroll for her team. 

“We are diligently preparing for a safe reopen once the SIP is lifted,” she says. “We will be changing the layout of the studio so that we can serve smaller classes with six feet in between each person. We are lucky to have two large suites that offer lots of fresh air to ventilate the studio, and we’ll be working on our decks with equipment and classes to add more working space. We are dedicated to making our grand reopening a safe experience.”

The 411: The Mill Valley Chamber’s COVID-19 MV Business Fund has raised more than $77,000 dollars to support direct cash grants to local businesses impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. DONATE HERE and GO HERE for more information. Businesses can apply here.

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