BISMARCK — Nearly 20,000 North Dakota businesses collected more than $1.7 billion in federal funding this spring as the U.S. government injected an emergency stream into private companies to buoy a floundering national economy during the pandemic.
The vast majority of North Dakota beneficiaries received small loans of less than $150,000, but more than 2,000 businesses accepted larger sums, as disclosed by the U.S. Small Business Administration report released this week.
Of the North Dakota companies that qualified for the bigger bracket of loans, 294 companies accepted loans of more than $1 million, and a small group of 14 businesses took the maximum available loans of $5 million to $10 million.
Many of the beneficiaries are familiar businesses to North Dakotans. Among local favorites are Sickies Garage, the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, the YMCA of Cass and Clay Counties, as well as some of the state’s most well-trafficked casinos, including Four Bears Casino, Sky Dancer Resort and Prairie Knights Casino.
The SBA list is the most comprehensive disclosure of the companies that benefited from the government’s Paycheck Protection Program nationwide, the federal assistance program designed to prop up small businesses during the pandemic to prevent recession layoffs. The PPP funding is billed as a federal loan program for individual companies, but businesses that comply with the loose strings attached to the funding will not have to pay the government back, effectively turning the loans into grants.
The PPP disclosures reveal a cross-section of the North Dakota economy, with loans reaching businesses in nearly every state industry. Oil field companies, utility providers and real estate agencies were among the most common recipients, but so were restaurants, churches and health care providers.
Among the relatively select group of North Dakota companies that accepted loans of more than $150,000, a majority took smaller-end loans of less than $350,000. The federal government has not disclosed the names of the some 17,500 small businesses that accepted the smallest bracket of loans.
Two companies tied to politicians that North Dakotans will find on their ballots this November also benefited from the program. Kilbourne Group, the real estate development company founded by Gov. Doug Burgum, accepted one of the mid-sized $350,000 to $1 million loans. And Killdeer Veterinary Clinic, the Dickinson animal clinic owned by Burgum’s Democratic gubernatorial challenger Shelley Lenz, accepted a $150,000 to $350,000 loan. Kilbourne Group stated that its loan helped retain 23 jobs, while Killdeer Veterinary Clinic reported that it was able to maintain 18 jobs.
Many of North Dakota’s colleges and university foundations were also among the state’s major beneficiaries. Trinity Bible College accepted a $350,000 to $1 million loan, the University of Jamestown took between $2 and $5 million, and the University of North Dakota Aerospace Foundation received a $1 to $2 million loan. Another high-profile inclusion, the North Dakota State University Foundation, the philanthropic arm of NDSU, accepted one of the $350,000 to $1 million loans, reporting that the loan allowed them to retain 43 jobs.
Businesses on Native American reservations were common beneficiaries. Apart from five reservation-based casinos, several tribal community colleges took loans, including Sitting Bull College, Cankdeska Cikana Community College, Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, and Turtle Mountain Community College.
Five of the 14 North Dakota companies that received $5 to $10 million loans came from Grand Forks, the state’s manufacturing hub.
Most of these Grand Forks companies reported that the federal intervention helped them retain hundreds of jobs. ACME Electric Motor reported that it was able to rescue 473 jobs, while Edgewood Opco and the retirement community Valley Senior Living both reported that they retained the maximum 500 jobs.
Grand Forks-based Strata Corporation, Fargo-based Northern Improvement and several other companies that went through Associated Bank as a lender strangely reported they retained zero jobs with their loans. A Northern Improvement spokesman explained that the company had, in fact, used all of its loan for labor costs, and he attributed the data quirk to a potential error by the bank in its reporting to the SBA. A spokesman for the bank did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Western North Dakota’s oil companies accounted for many of the state’s top loan recipients. More than 170 businesses in the field received more than $150,000, including Dickinson-based Wyoming Casing Service, which got at least $5 million. Nearly 375 other Oil Patch companies received less than $150,000.
The state’s oil industry has been thrown into turmoil as the pandemic aligned with a global oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, but the SBA list reports that the PPP program helped North Dakota oil field companies retain more than 7,000 jobs. Still, workers in the energy sector filed more unemployment claims in May, the most recent month of data, than any other industry.
The Dickinson-based Fisher Group was another notable recipient, taking one of the $150,000 to $300,000 loans. Fisher Group is part-owned and founded by Mike Fisher, a former vice president of Fisher Sand & Gravel, which has recently drawn headlines for winning contracts to build part of the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
Companies must use at least 60% of the loans to cover payroll costs for them to turn into grants. However, there is little oversight of how firms are spending the funds, opening the door for misuse.
North Dakota companies received an outsized proportion of the federal government’s PPP funding, a result of savvy operating by the Bank of North Dakota. A Washington Post analysis from earlier this year found that North Dakota received more PPP funding per private-sector worker than any other state in the country, nearly $5,000 per capita.
The Bank of North Dakota, the nation’s only state-owned bank, educated small private bankers across the state on loan applications well before the PPP program was rolled out, connecting them with representatives from the U.S. Small Business Administration in a concerted effort to funnel funding into North Dakota.
The federal government extended nearly 5 million PPP loans to businesses across the country, totaling more than $521 billion and supporting more than 51 million jobs.
The rushed nature of the PPP loan program has generated some controversy over the last few months. Imprecise wording in a massive coronavirus stimulus package known as the CARES Act meant that some large, publicly traded companies managed to qualify for loans intended for small businesses. And while the Trump administration has tried to reel those loans back in, companies are not required to return the money and some have declined to surrender their funds.