By Mark Bassett

Special to the Ely Times

Success! On April 10th, the Nevada Northern Railway Foundation received a Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan from The First National Bank of Ely. This Payroll Protection Program loan was not only one of the first issued in Ely, but it was also one of the first issued in Nevada.

It was reported by a Nevada Small Business Development Center (SBDC) counselor, which is funded by the Small Business Administration (SBA), that as of Friday, April 10th, Nevada reported the only Paycheck Protection Loans approved and funded for clients had originated from The First National Bank of Ely.

Receiving our Payroll Protection Program loan in a week from when the national program went active is a remarkable event. If you followed any of the news stories, the federal government wanted to help small businesses make their payroll, but implementing a nation-wide program in days would be an unbelievable feat. The SBA needed to create the program immediately. Who could apply? How could they apply? Where could they apply? What were the requirements? Guidelines had to be created from scratch. Policies, procedures, forms, websites, and guidance all needed to be done instantly!

On the local level, banks needed to figure out how to implement the program. This was difficult in the extreme! They were receiving inquiries from their customers on the PPP loans and at the same time SBA was changing the program guidance and parameters almost hourly. Websites would change overnight, IF the website was even available. Guidance and parameters were fluid, which as you can imagine is unsettling to bankers who were going to be making the loans. SBA employees were working 20-hour days, with little sleep, trying to create a program out of thin air that could be implemented at the local level. What follows is the story of two local bank officers who were able to implement Payroll Protection Program and get confirmation to issue loans in just two days after the program went live.
The county seat of White Pine County Nevada is Ely. It has been said that Ely is the most remote city in the contiguous United States. Driving west out of town, there is a state highway sign that reinforces the claim; it simply states, “Next Gas 167 Miles.”

Ely is located about 240 miles from a city. There is choice; either Salt Lake City or Las Vegas, both are about 4½ hours away by car. Driving is your only choice; Ely has no bus service or airline service. Why? The city’s population is just 3,944. The entire county’s population is 9,475. Those numbers will not support secondary transportation. White Pine County and Ely are its own little economic region in remote rural Nevada. The main economic drivers are mining, a state prison and tourism.

On March 17, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak announced the closure of all nonessential businesses in the state for 30 days. That was later extended to April 30th. The Governor stated the closures were happening immediately to further stop the spread of COVID-19.
Located in Ely is the Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark. The Landmark is operated by the Nevada Northern Railway Foundation as a tourism attraction for the community. The Foundation has been successful in developing the railroad as a major tourism attraction. Visitation has grown from only a few thousand visitors per year to almost 30,000 tourists who make the trek to Ely.

This growth of the railroad as a tourist attraction has been partially responsible for the construction of two new hotels in Ely, a La Quinta Inn and Suites and recently a Holiday Inn Express and Suites. At the railroad, this success led to an increase in employment from four to eighteen employees along with a substantial increase with the railroad’s annual payroll budget. Fortunately, the increase in tourism also led to an increase in revenue. Like most small businesses, the railroad operates on a very small margin. We generate just enough revenue to cover expenses and not much more.

The shutdown of the railroad was a double-edge sword – it cut both ways. Without having visitors, it allowed staff to work on projects that there was never enough time to get done. Great! But without visitors and with a travel freeze, the railroad’s income dropped like a rock. At this time of the year, our revenue is transitioning from revenue raised from our end of year fundraiser, to ticket sales for the upcoming season. All of a sudden, there was no upcoming season and the financial cupboard was getting close to empty.

News reports carried stories of the impact of the coronavirus on the economy with all of the closures. They also carried stories of how the federal government was working to put together an economic stimulus package but details were very thin. On March 27th President Trump signed into law the CARES Act that includes the Payroll Protection Program. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced the program would go live on April 3rd in just one week.

I called our loan officer at The First National Bank of Ely, Jacki Hansen, and asked what she knew. She was doing the same thing that I was doing, scouring SBA websites and contacting SBA employees. We would compare notes and then continue researching, making calls trying to find information that explained how the loan program was set up and how it could be implemented. On April 2, on the SBA website, I found the Payroll Protection Program loan application. I filled it out and sent it to Jacki with our payroll information for the previous year. My hope was that the railroad would be first in line to receive a Payroll Protection Program loan. My concern was the news reports stating that the loans would be issued on a first-come, first-serve basis. Those same repots stated they expected that the program would run out of money in a week. Headlines on April 2nd were grim, “Banks warn of chaotic launch of small business lending program”. Other headlines stated, “SBA’s coronavirus Payroll Protection Program has a rocky rollout” and “PPP rollout a disaster for small businesses in coronavirus crisis.”

Checking with Jacki, that’s what she was experiencing, a rocky rollout. Information was hard to come by. Websites were either unavailable or crashing and speaking with SBA employees wasn’t helpful because they simply didn’t have the needed information. Also she let me know that the application I filled out wasn’t the correct one, it had changed. She told me that before I filled out a new one to wait until Sunday, when she would email all of the banks customers a correct (fingers crossed) Payroll Projection Program loan application packet.

True to her word, on Sunday, April 5th at 4:17 p.m., I received an email from her. In it she said, “We have a loan packet and a helpful worksheet attached to ensure that everyone understands the documents needed to apply for the SBA Payroll Protection Loan. Please complete the packet fully to ensure a streamlined process and allow us to apply on behalf of as many businesses as possible.”

After her email, I got to work. I did a new, correct application. I put together all the forms and documents that were requested in the packet. The pressure was on, the railroad had enough funds to cover the next week’s payroll and perhaps the week after that, but then we would be out of cash.

Monday morning, I submitted the complete loan application packet. I double checked with Jackie if everything was correct and complete. She assured me that everything was, BUT she could not get into the SBA’s loan portal. The bank was locked out! And it wasn’t just The First National Bank of Ely. She told me that banks across the country were locked out. Loan applications could not be submitted for approval. And no one knew how, why or when the situation would change.

Helping Jacki with this situation was the bank’s Cashier, Katie Gianoli-Rozich. Neither one was willing to give up on getting the loan applications submitted. Working until pass 1:00 a.m., Jacki and Katie burned the midnight oil. (So much for banker’s hours.) Anyone who has ever experienced a computer glitch knows how frustrating it is! Adding to the frustration was the worry that the program would be spent out before local applications could be submitted which would seriously damage the local economy.

Never one to give up, and very determined to open the SBA loan portal for the bank’s customers, Katie kept at it. Monday and Tuesday went by with no results. Neither calls, emails, nor computer updates were providing the key to open the loan portal. Finally, at 11:09 a.m. on Wednesday, April 8th, the hard work paid off. Katie let me know that the loan portal was OPEN and the railroad’s Payroll Protection Program Loan was approved! In less than a week after the roll out of a national emergency program, The First National Bank of Ely, in remote rural Nevada started issuing loans to protect the payroll of small businesses in the community. Because of the community’s remoteness, the issuance of the payroll loans had an enormous impact on the local economy. It allowed businesses to keep paying their employees, which allows the employees to keep paying their bills and purchase food for their families. This was the intent of the program and its successful implementation here will help the community enormously.

The loan that the railroad received will cover our payroll until the end of June. That is a huge relief. We have eighteen specially trained employees who have been with the railroad for years. Attempting to replace them would be a nightmarish scenario. After all, finding trained steam locomotive mechanics, engineers, and firemen would be impossible.
More importantly, by being able to keep these trained staff members as employees through this difficult time, means that when the travel restrictions are lifted, the Nevada Northern Railway will be ready. We will be able to fire up our steam locomotives once again, keeping a 114-year tradition alive.

Thanks to the Payroll Protection Program, The First National Bank of Ely and specifically, Jacki and Katie, when we are given the green light, the big wheels will turn here once again. Jackie’s and Katie’s unceasing labors pulled off an economic miracle for the community. They are the heroes of not only the railroad, but many other small business in White Pine County. Now we just have to get them fitted for capes.

*At The Throttle was a weekly series of columns written by Mark Bassett, the President of the Nevada Northern Railway Foundation from 2002 through 2010. Those columns are available on the railroad’s website. Starting with this column, At The Throttle is back as a column in the Ely Times and as a blog on the railroad’s website