THORNVILLE — Small business owners flocked to the Buckeye Lake Winery Friday, seeking information on what help can be offered by the government while water levels on the lake remain at a historic low.

After a report warned the nearly 180-year-old earthen dam was at risk of failing, state officials are keeping the lake low and limiting boating and water activities. Some local business owners say they have already seen business decrease, and they fear things could get worse as the project is expected to take several years. U.S. Senator Rob Portman hosted a small business seminar at the winery featuring representatives from several local, state and federal agencies who offered help and advice to struggling enterprises. “It’s going to be tough for some of these businesses,” Portman said. “In the meantime, the federal government can help with financial assistance.”

Portman endorsed a $300,000 grant proposal that would be used for economic development in the region and would benefit the three counties that surround the Lake (Perry, Licking and Fairfield). “It’s important that all three counties work together because we are all in this together,” said Perry County Commissioner Dave Freriks. “We can use some of these funds to study the economic impact this is having on small businesses, then we can best apply the revolving loan fund to help them survive this economic disaster.”

Even if the region were declared an “economic disaster” by the federal government, help would come in the form of low interest loans, State Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark, said. “One of the criteria... we have to demonstrate at least five businesses that have a loss of 40 percent or more in a period of time,” Hottinger told the crowd Friday. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to be a hurdle that will make us stumble.” Hottinger said state officials have until the beginning of August to complete the application. “We’re all working to ensure that small businesses are able to survive,” Hottinger said. “Those that survive are going to thrive.”

Hottinger said he asked Governor John Kasich to help by declaring the area an “economic disaster,” a distinction that could pave the way for additional assistance, possibly more long-term low interest loans for businesses along the lake.

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