Back to Business grant program to provide additional funding for businesses in Illinois


Katie Chen/The Daily Northwestern

Cheryl Judice, the president and owner of Hecky’s Barbecue in Evanston, said she plans to apply for funding from the Back to Business grant program.

Kate Walter, Assistant City Editor

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity announced in March it will invest an additional $175 million in funding for the Back to Business grant program, which provides pandemic relief funding for businesses in the hardest-hit industries. 

B2B was first established in August 2021 by DCEO and originally leveraged $250 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act  

To assist with administering B2B funding, Illinois works with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition Community Development fund, which focuses on development loans. Marisa Calderon, the Executive Director of NCRC CDF, said the new round of B2B funding is meant to support Illinois businesses who missed out on previous grants. 

“(The money is) for small businesses in particular, especially those that are underserved or operated by people of color or women,” Calderon said. “Largely these groups didn’t really reap the benefits of a lot of the other pandemic related relief.” 

She said the grant is designed with these businesses in mind by setting an eligibility window, rather than a first-come, first-serve system. 

Eligibility criteria is different for three categories of business: restaurants, hotels and creative arts. Restaurants that have already received state pandemic relief funding or more than $10,000 in local funding are ineligible for the new grant. Hotels that previously received state or local grants will see that amount deducted from the overall amount they’re awarded during this B2B grant cycle. Grants awarded to those in the creative arts sector will be solely based on 2021 losses for businesses that received prior state relief funding.

To be eligible for the latest round of funding, businesses in all three sectors also must have been in operation prior to the start of the pandemic. 

DCEO provides program information in multiple languages and works with more than 100 community navigators to increase awareness of the program. Applications for the grant are open through May 10. 

Cheryl Judice, the president and owner of Hecky’s Barbecue in Evanston, said she plans to apply for the grant to help cover the restaurant’s operational expenses. The funding will help pay back debt from renovations completed during the pandemic, she said.

“The nice thing about that state money is that it’s a grant, and it’s not a loan,” Judice said. “That’s very important because we’ve all taken out plenty of loans to try and keep our businesses afloat.” 

Sam Thousand, a musician in Chicago who is applying for the grant, said he believes the funding toward creative arts is “inclusive” and will help many in the industry. 

“There’s a lot of artists out there who have never applied for grants,” Thousand said. “I think that it’s very important for us to show that this is quite easy (to apply).”

Thousand is promoting the grants through social media and is planning an event with ChiBrations, an arts organization he co-founded, to raise awareness for the program. 

Kacie Smith, the director of programs at Arts Alliance Illinois, likewise said the eligibility criteria for grant funding are more expansive than past programs, because sole proprietors are included in the eligibility. She said she hopes many in the creative arts community will be encouraged to apply. 

Judice added that she appreciates any help to offset losses as her business continues to recover from the financial impact of the pandemic.

We’re all hurting out here, and I’m no different even though we have been around a long time,” Judice said. “Anything that allows businesses to prosper, get a little extra help, is wonderful.”

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