Independently owned local restaurants have been the primary beneficiaries of Kern's pandemic recovery program, followed by insurance agencies, bars and real estate offices, as the county prepares to distribute the remaining three-fifths of a fund lenders say has already helped the area's economy.

County data shows full-service restaurants have so far received $1.24 million from the Kern Recovers stimulus, or about 12 percent, while insurance agencies and brokerages took in $385,000 and drinking establishments got $290,000. Real estate offices and limited-service restaurants rounded out the top five, collecting $285,000 and $274,000, respectively.

As of June 23, 370 businesses representing 152 industries have accepted loans averaging $25,400, according to the county. Records show about $15 million remains in a fund that initially totaled $25 million.

The program, launched in late May using federal taxpayer dollars, at first benefited only small businesses designated non-essential during the quarantine. It was recently expanded to serve essential businesses as well, and soon is expected to help businesses that have received federal recovery money, which was initially a disqualifying factor.

Kern Recovers is considered more flexible than federal assistance programs launched during the pandemic, in that the county fund has looser restrictions on how the money is spent. Most of the money awarded under the local program is expected to be forgiven, based on recipients' documentation of expenditures.

Ryan Alsop, Kern's chief administrative officer, said the county is pleased with the program's progress and happy with the participation of the four lenders involved, AltaOne Credit Union, Mission Bank, Valley Republic Bank and Valley Strong Credit Union.

Mama Tosca's Ristorante Italiano in Bakersfield has been among the program's loan recipients. Co-owner Luigi Rienzo said the pandemic has been very hard on business, at one point cutting revenue almost 90 percent. Sales have recently rebounded to about 50 percent of normal, he said.

While declining to say how much money the Ming Avenue restaurant received — $75,000 is the limit per business — he called the loan "a blessing."

"Oh my God. Are you kidding me?” he asked. "I’m so thankful. Beyond thankful.”

Mission Bank President and CEO A.J. Antongiovanni said Kern Recovers has worked well and has already proved a substantial benefit to the local economy, helping businesses pull through a very difficult time.

“It's a huge impact," he said, adding that the loans carry a psychological impact that makes people feel better about the economy.

"That kind of trickles down and (businesses and consumers) are more optimistic. That gets our economy going,” he said.

Although Bakersfield-based Mission Bank has accounted for only about 7 percent of the loan applications approved so far, Antongiovanni said the bank's share of approvals will increase as the program transitions to help businesses, including many of his existing customers, that have already received federal loan money.

Valley Strong Credit Union has filed the greatest number of successful applications, accounting for about 54 percent of Kern Recovery loans issued to date. A representative of the Bakersfield-based institution said the program will elicit a benefit well beyond its dollar total, up to $200 million.

"Just the multiplier effect of these funds going into the community (will) save these jobs and continue to make the business environment here in Bakersfield strong," said Chuck Smith, senior vice president and chief of lending at Valley Strong.

He recalled an application from a local store that remained closed during much of the quarantine. Although it was able to keep up with rent and utility payments, he said, the business hadn't received federal financial assistance and had reason to worry.

"They told me if they hadn’t gotten that money they wouldn’t have been able to open back up,” he said.

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