New initiative combats economic downturn on-Island

Dukes County and Chamber of Commerce partner with local businesses to help pinpoint and access much-needed grant funds. 

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The Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce is teaming up with the Dukes County Commission to support Island businesses and organizations in applying for and receiving grant funds. — Lucas Thors

The business community on Martha’s Vineyard is slowly working its way out of an economic crisis that shook the foundations of nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies and how they operate.

During the pandemic, businesses faced staffing shortages and diminishing revenue due to health regulations, and were forced to adjust their models to cut costs. They were also required to purchase personal protective equipment and spring for other safety measures in order to comply with state and federal mandates. With so many rapid and expensive changes happening, businesses had little time to apply for lifeline grants, and some were unaware of the opportunities that were available. 

Even now, as the state continues to reopen and commerce begins to ramp up, current estimates show that 25 percent of Vineyard businesses and nonprofits will not survive COVID without more Island-wide financial support. In 2020, according to industry figures, commercial airline travel was down 69 percent and Steamship Authority passenger numbers were down 25 percent. Based on research conducted by Oxford Economics, the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism estimated Vineyard tourism suffered a 40 percent loss in business for 2020. The Island lost at least $76.5 million in direct visitor spending, an additional $112 million in indirect spending, and a minimum of $4.3 million in local tax revenue.

As the Island economy attempts to recuperate, many organizations and businesses will be looking to get in a better financial position, and that’s where grant funds come in.

In order to support industry and commerce on the Vineyard, Dukes County and the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce have teamed up and hired a professional grant writer, Patricia Mitrokostas, to identify grant opportunities that could benefit certain businesses and industries. 

The collaborative effort, called the Martha’s Vineyard Economic Recovery Initiative (MVERI), highlights the need for collective action between businesses with similar goals, and partnerships with entities like the county and the chamber of commerce.

“The need for us to come together and act as one Island has always been important, but never more important than during COVID,” Gerald Jones, co-creator of the initiative, told The Times. “We realize that, in the absence of an organization that got people together right away when COVID hit, other than on health issues and the like, there just wasn’t anything going on, and businesses were left largely to fend for themselves.”

Jones said he met with fellow board members on the Martha’s Vineyard Nonprofit Collaborative (MVNC) who agreed that a major hole in the support network for Island businesses and nonprofits is a centralized place to apply for and receive grants from federal and state agencies.

As part of the MVERI, Mitrokostas will be reaching out to businesses and organizations on the Island to see if they need help finding grant funds, and strengthening their applications to give them the best possible chance. 

“We have a great grant writer, so how can we help?” Jones said, encouraging local folks to reach out if they need help locating and applying for grants. “I believe there is a need for some organizations on the Island to have a grant resource which doesn’t wait for organizations to call them, but reaches out and lets people know about what is available.” He added that a large portion of grants never get the attention of the Island, and many funding sources go entirely unutilized.

As a number of Islandwide environmental issues come into increasing focus, such as nitrogen loading in local estuaries, and rising sea levels and harsher storms that threaten our coastline, organizations that deal with these issues will be looking for funding sources. Jones said having the help of a professional grant writer like Mitrokostas, along with the backing of both the county and the chamber of commerce, will add some “oomph” to any entity’s application. 

In order to demonstrate that an organization is deserving of a grant, they need to provide the grantor with what Jones called a “story,” which illustrates why the grant is necessary, and how that organization will use the grant in the most beneficial and efficient way. 

The MVERI is in the process of creating a template for this kind of story, in order to streamline the application process and avoid “reinventing the wheel each time you go to apply,” Jones said.

So far, there are already several success stories where Mitrokostas was able to access grants from the Commonwealth, as well as from the United Way, a conglomeration of nonprofit fundraising entities.

Through grant applications, the Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Chambers of Commerce secured $175,000 from the Massachusetts Office of Business Development for a regional pilot grant for a slew of technology improvements.

Mitrokostas was also able to research and provide six funding sources to the MVNC for future grants, and identified four grant funding sources for Martha’s Vineyard Hospice for grief and family support groups during the pandemic.

“When I learned from [Mitrokostas] and others that around 50 percent of grants aren’t even applied for, it just stunned me,” Jones said. “Some people don’t go after grants because they are hard to apply for, and we are trying to eliminate that barrier.”

Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce executive director Nancy Gardella said she was approached by Jones and Dukes County Commissioner John Cahill with the idea of getting involved in the conversations that are already taking place between Island businesses and nonprofits related to grant funding and collaboration.

“We knew people were talking about this, we knew there would be time when recovery would start to happen, but what would those pain points actually be? How can we start to take all the conversation happening in the community, and identify grant money that might be available to meet those most immediate needs?” Gardella said. 

Specifically, solutions related to COVID that have affected certain industries are a good target to aim for when applying for grants, according to Gardella. “We can’t solve all the COVID-related issues, but it’s one area that wasn’t being met, and businesses are still reeling from those affects,” Gardella said. “They are still going to need a lot of support.”

For the chamber, Gardella said, the central goal is to support the economic health of everyone on Martha’s Vineyard, and encourage folks from off-Island to choose the Vineyard as their destination.

“So we need our business sector to be robust. As long as people are spending money on Martha’s Vineyard, it works for Martha’s Vineyard. By partnering with the county, which is a regional entity, we can support businesses across the Island without prejudice, and we are eager to do so,” Gardella said.