In the 40 years that Haeng Chong has owned his Vancouver dry cleaning business, he’s never seen demand drop like this.

When COVID-19 first hit, the volume of customers seeking services from Fourth Plain One Hour Dry Cleaning cratered by around 90%, he said. People just weren’t going out much anymore — and that meant they didn’t really need to maintain their going-out clothes. Laundering those going-out clothes is his livelihood.

Business was “really down,” Chong said, sitting in his lobby Monday evening just after closing time. It’s since partially rebounded, he said, but COVID-19 remains a huge hurdle to keeping his doors open.

“Now it’s still about 30 percent down, at least,” Chong said.

In 1981, Chong and his wife founded their Vancouver dry cleaning business, which employs one other person. They made it through the last year in part due to grant funding for small businesses. With the help of their son, the Chongs applied and received two rounds of funding from the Small Business Emergency Grant Program operated by local nonprofit Fourth Plain Forward.

A neighborhood of entrepreneurs

Fourth Plain One Hour Dry Cleaning is one of approximately 150 small businesses along the central Vancouver corridor, also referred to as the city’s International District. Around 80 percent of those businesses have owners from Black, Indigenous and people of color communities.

According to Kimberly Gonzales, Fourth Plain Forward’s business development coordinator, a disproportionate number of business owners in the neighborhood deal in some of the hardest-hit industries: restaurants, salons and cleaning services.

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At least two businesses owned by Black, Indigenous or people of color in the neighborhood have had to close since the start of the pandemic, she added.

“The pandemic has hit them very hard,” Gonzales said. “Businesses in the corridor are losing income, losing clients.”

The latest round of the Small Business Emergency Grant Program stems from a $175,000 grant from the SW Washington COVID Response Fund, an emergency relief fund established in early 2020 by the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington.

Money received by applicants can go toward whatever helps keep the business afloat. Rent or lease payments, payroll and inventory are all eligible expenses.

“Anything that could help them, potentially. We don’t really have limitations,” Gonzales said, adding that she’s already received more than 25 applications.

To qualify for the grant, businesses must be located along Fourth Plain and adjacent streets between Interstate 5 and Northeast Andresen Road. Home-based businesses — like residential child care providers, remote marketers and landscaping businesses — are eligible.

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Though any business along the corridor can qualify, those owned by historically marginalized communities including Black, Indigenous, people of color and women applicants will be given priority by the review committee. The committee includes two members of the Fourth Plain Forward Board, two community members and the nonprofit’s interim executive director, Sydney Johnson.

The group is scheduled to review applications on May 21. Funding announcements and dispersals are expected to be completed within three days.

“We do encourage our businesses who were awarded in the previous two rounds to apply,” Gonzales said.

Last year, Fourth Plain One Hour Dry Cleaning received a combined $16,000 in two rounds of funding. It helped the business hang on through an otherwise-impossible situation, Chong said.

“Think about this year, about 20, 30 percent down. How do I survive?” Chong asked. “I got grants.”

He applied again for the latest round of grant funding over the weekend. He’s hopeful that a third modest infusion can help the cleaners through another tough year, because the alternative would cost him his business.

“I have to pay utilities, rent,” Chong said. “No choice. Or, two choices — grants can help me, or automatically I have to close. I cannot keep this business.”