MIDDLETOWN, NJ - Many bright and booming businesses have converted into dull and empty spaces, as business owners around the world face new challenges due to COVID-19. Some have overcome these difficulties, while others have slipped into the cracks and have yet to return.
Rep. Chris Smith, Middletown Mayor Tony Perry and Freeholder Director Tom Arnone, are working to provide hope and prevent Middletown businesses from being a victim of the latter.
On Thursday morning, Oct. 15, local business owners, with members of both the Middletown Township Committee and economic development committee, joined Mayor Perry and Rep. Chris Smith, and Freeholder Director Tom Arnone, as they introduced the Middletown Economic Relief Program (MERP). MERP is an initiative Smith voted for to support small local businesses.
WATCH VIDEO of Mayor Perry, listen to why MERP?:
“The American Dream is going to live past this pandemic, but we’re going to have to do it all together to get there,” Perry said. “And that’s why Middletown is stepping up to the plate.”
Perry announced the program at 11 a.m. outside Nana's Italian Restaurant in the Fountain Ridge Shopping Center, Route 35 South, in Middletown. He said the township has received slightly over $400,000 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This money will be used to assist small businesses who apply and qualify for MERP. He said the program will provide grants of up to $15,000. To be considered, businesses must be located in Middletown, employ 50 people or fewer and have a revenue of less than $5 million.
The businesses have to be based in Middletown, but owners can live outside the township.
“We don’t care if you live in another town. We don’t care who you employ,” Perry said. “We want you to stay in business. We want you to stay here in Middletown. This is a great town because of you.”
Mayor Tony Perry also made the reference that both Smith and Arnone "helped bring the program to life for Middletown."
WATCH: Freeholder Director Tom Arnone:
WATCH: Congressman Chris Smith speaks about MERP:
“COVID-19 has devastated everything we knew, and know, and has changed everything,” Smith said. “The question has always been: How do we get a bridge from where we were before COVID-19 hit to where we can thrive again?”
TAPinto spoke with Smith who said, "I believe this hypothetical bridge is MERP." He said the program reminds people of the friends and resources they have, which will ultimately allow our country to thrive again. He commended the small businesses in attendance and gave a special acknowledgement to No Limits Cafe, a cafe that specifically hires people with intellectual disabilities.
Also, the co-owners and employees of No Limits Cafe, owners from Code Ninjas and also Pueblo Mágico were present.
Code Ninjas is a franchise of coding schools that teach children how to code and create video games. Stadi Sinclair opened one in Middletown three years ago.
Sinclair said the school went remote in mid-March and lost about 80 percent of its students during those few months. He believes students suffered from virtual burnout, since they had to attend both regular school and their extracurricular activities virtually.
Sinclair said Code Ninjas reopened on July 6 and has since regained 90 percent of the students it lost. He said MERP would help his business in so many ways.
“There’s a lot of overhead and I only had a little bit of revenue as a cushion,” Sinclair said. “When you're paying big chunks of money like $1,500 here and $1,000 there, it goes really quick.”
He said he tries not to worry too much, but understands how nerve wracking it is to be a small business owner, especially right now.
“When you see another small business go out, it just hurts,” Sinclair said. “This is not just your job. It’s your everything.”
Sinclair said his dedicated students and their families have kept his small business alive. Lidia and Aldo Ximil, owners of Pueblo Mágico, feel the same way about their customers.
The married couple opened their family-run Mexican restaurant in 2019. Lidia said they never had to close their business, due to the outpouring support they received from the community.
“We feel very fortunate,” Aldo said. “Whenever somebody asks how we're feeling, we say we're feeling good.”
Although March was a slow month, Lidia said the restaurant has been busy since. They’ve adjusted to different safety guidelines to make their customers and employees feel comfortable. In addition to takeout and delivery services, they also offer outdoor and limited indoor dining. Lidia said they have extra expenses due to COVID-19, and believes this program would help manage them.
Perry encourages all Middletown businesses that qualify to apply for MERP.
“This program is going to be able to provide grants for our small businesses of up to $15,000 to assist in their operation, to ensure that they have PPE (personal protective equipment), to ensure that they’re able to sanitize, and provide the residents of this town, Monmouth County and the state of New Jersey with a safe place to eat and to learn,” Perry said. “That’s what this is all about.”
To sign up for an alert that notifies you when the program’s application is available, please visit www.middletownnj.org/merp