Top 100: Coming to the Rescue During COIVID: Preserve the Fort, Care 4 Tarrant, United Way of Tarrant County

Leah King at Top 100 Awards photo by Neetish Basnet

Leah M. King, President & Chief Executive Officer, United Way of Tarrant County

Mayor Betsy Price, City of Fort Worth

Judge Glen Whitley, Tarrant County Commissioners Court

2020. The year will forever be linked with the COVID-19 pandemic that not only caused a major, worldwide health crisis, but it also began devastating economies along the way. Early on, it was obvious that waiting for help was not a viable solution.
No surprise that leaders in Fort Worth and Tarrant County worked quickly to find a way to offer aid to small businesses in the area.

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Earlier this summer, the City of Fort Worth and United Way of Tarrant County launched the Preserve the Fort small business grant program as a way to distribute CARES Act funding to small businesses across the city who had been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first round of the program provided $6.2 million to 842 businesses distributed across every district in Fort Worth. The city’s minority-owned businesses and businesses located in the city’s targeted neighborhoods received a combined $4.1 million. Of the companies who applied, 95% were businesses with 25 employees or fewer.

However, economic fallout from the pandemic has continued and, as a result, the city is gearing up to launch a second round of Preserve the Fort business grants with the almost $9 million left in its business-related CARES Act allocation.
“While we had many successes with the first round of Preserve the Fort, there’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Robert Sturns, the city’s economic development director. “In addition to our small business owners, several of the industries for which Fort Worth is known – our bars and restaurants, our arts scene, our music venues, and others – are all still struggling. This second round of funding will hopefully help offset some of the damage from the past few months.”
Tarrant County began with its Care 4 Tarrant program.

An amount of $30 million in CARES Act funds has been allocated by the Tarrant County Commissioners Court to the Small Business Assistance Grant Program for grant funding purposes. In the initial round of applications, the County has disbursed over $17.6 million of the original $30 million designated for the program as of Oct. 13, 2020.

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Through the first round of funding, Tarrant County has provided 2,196 small businesses with grant awards totaling $17.6 million of the original $30 million designated for the program. A second round of applications for the Small Business Assistance Grants are now being accepted.

We should note that we are awarding these organizations for their work, but there are many, many others out there – large and small – as well as individuals that have made contributions and sacrifices to aid the community in this pandemic.

The Fort Worth Business Press spoke to the United Way’s Leah King about the program.
“Participation in this kind of event is many ways is unusual for a United Way,” she said.
What let United Way of Tarrant County to become involved and take a lead role here?This pandemic is unlike anything we have ever seen. The devastation was swift, starting with the closing of senior citizen centers to loss of income because of layoffs to people not able to provide their families with the basic needs.

I knew we had to act quickly, and we had the means with our Emergency Relief Fund. We invested $50,000 immediately to help cover food for seniors impacted by the closing of senior centers and who no longer had access to daily meals. 
And by watching the cancellation of big events such as SXSW, I knew this pandemic would grow and present challenges that needed immediate attention. People need to eat. People need to be able to pay rent. People need access to health care. People need their jobs. So helping to support efforts to stabilize small businesses, the backbone of our economy, is 100% in alignment with our work towards helping families achieve financial stability.

We also were able to respond in ways we haven’t before. Through our Area Agency on Aging, we were able to deliver meals to seniors and check on them in their homes to ensure their well-being.

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It also went beyond just providing funding to our partner agencies and other agencies through the North Texas Cares consortium; our role was to bring together resources to solve challenging issues.

I can’t think of a more challenging issue than the pandemic.

Whether it was through direct services provided by the Area Agency on Aging or direct funding, we rose to the challenge. We brought together partnerships at every level of local government, businesses, organizations and foundations. We worked hard as a leadership team and organization to go beyond providing emergency aid but making connections and bringing together resources to help those most impacted by COVID-19.

This effort and similar have been highly collaborative. While that is not unusual in Fort Worth, you and others have moved quickly from concept to implementation. How did that happen across agencies?
It is incredible how the community has come together to fight the effects of the pandemic. It took daily contact and sometimes hourly to minute-by-minute contact with the heads of the different agencies, foundations, organizations, and businesses throughout Tarrant County to bring all the pieces together.

Our biggest concern was ensuring the resources available through each entity, whether financial or in-kind, reached the people who needed it most. It involved a lot of people taking point and working within their organizations to create a structure and set up policies and procedures that lead to smooth implementation.

For example, we partnered with the City of Fort Worth on the Preserve the Fort small business grant initiative because we already had the infrastructure and expertise to distribute funds efficiently. We set up a web portal for taking applications and put a process in place for paying those awarded grants. This was taking our internal expertise and sharing it through a nontraditional partnership.
Another partnership is our #FeedTarrant initiative, where we have fed more than 4,200 families nearly 130,000 meals since mid-June. Partnering with Z’s Café, Fort Worth ISD, the Tarrant Area Food Bank and Generation Uplift, we set up 10 distribution centers to provide meals to those impacted by COVID-19.
This partnership came together very quickly with each organization providing expertise, whether through knowing how much food to order, securing volunteers to making the meals, pinpointing locations best served, and getting the word out to families in need.

This program is one of the most special to me, as food insecurity continues to be one of the top issues resulting from the pandemic. I worry every day that people are not able to feed their families. To be able to feed so many families, thanks to our partners and a number of incredibly generous donors, is truly a blessing.