Downtown streets were unusually empty as the pandemic took hold last year. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Over $4 million is on its way to over 200 Marion County landlords and businesses to help cover rent that’s gone unpaid because of the pandemic.

The grants are the first round of payments from the state’s Commercial Rent Relief Program, a $100 million effort set up earlier this year to help struggling businesses and commercial landlords.

About 2,600 applications were awarded $50 million in grants included in the program’s first round, according to numbers provided by Business Oregon, the state agency in charge of administering the program.

Of those, 207 applications were from Marion County, 174 of which were in Salem. In Polk County, 16 businesses and landlords will receive grants totaling $349,000.

Although businesses are eligible for up to $100,000, the average amount requested so far has been $20,000, said Nathan Buehler, spokesman for Business Oregon.

In Marion County, the average grant amount is $19,490. In Polk County, it’s $21,813.

The program was launched earlier in March just as a state mandate intended to prevent evictions of businesses was about to expire. That’s put pressure on Business Oregon to get the money out.

Last year, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill that prohibited eviction notices on commercial tenants for nonpayment of rent during an “emergency period” of April 1, 2020 through Sept. 20, 2020. The bill also mandated a grace period for commercial tenants to pay back rent that expired on March 31, 2021.

The Oregon House last week passed House Bill 2966, which further extends the grace period to Sept. 30 of this year and retroactively.

The legislation’s sponsor, state Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, said on the House floor that it doesn’t make sense for the grace period to end before Business Oregon can distribute the relief money.

“Candidly, this bill is coming a little bit late,” he said. He added that it was better late than never.

State Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, criticized Business Oregon for not being quicker in getting the money out.

Buehler said the agency has been working diligently to set up the technology and the process for the new program.

The program requires both the tenant and the landlord to participate. Buehler said the initial application, filled out by the landlord, has straightforward questions, such as how much back rent is owed and others. He said checks began going out last week for complete applications.

But the program also required the tenant to verify the information and provide a copy of the lease on file, and about 850 applications still have missing information, he said. Agency staff are contacting landlords and tenants to get the missing information before sending out checks, and the agency brought in about 20 temporary staff to process applications, he said.

“It’s a grant program,” he said. “We’re not just handing out duffel bags of cash. We have to verify information.”

On Thursday, April 22, Business Oregon will open up its second round of grants for the program.

This time, $42 million will be available, said Buehler. Another $8 million is set aside just for coastal communities that have been particularly affected by the drop in tourism during the pandemic.

More information can be found on Business Oregon’s website.

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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