Small business grant program depleted funds on first day

Less than a week after the Jacksonville City Council passed a bill authorizing $2,000 grants to small businesses whose incomes were crushed by the Coronavirus, all 4,500 grants available had been spoken for and there was a waiting list.

On May 26, City Council members voted unanimously to approve The Small Business Relief bill sponsored by District 5 Councilwoman LeAnna Cumber of San Marco and co-sponsored by 10 council members. It provides prepaid debit cards to businesses that lost at least 25% of their income due to COVID-19, had less than 100 employees and been open for more than a year as of Feb. 29, 2020. 

“It was definitely a successful program,” Cumber said. “I know they had a couple of hiccups on Monday and they were able to resolve those pretty successfully. Everyone, all the businesses in San Marco who were looking for a little bit of help seemed very happy that they were able to apply and get a little bit of that help to get them up and running. I was thrilled to get the support of the community and the San Marco Merchants Association, to get them help as they reopen.”

The Small Business Relief program’s aim is to lessen the pain for business owners, some of whom could not qualify for other assistance. It is a grant program, separate from the Vystar loan program in partnership with the City that would pay the interest on emergency small business loans and potentially reduce the principal. To qualify for the loan program, businesses must have employed at least two people, which left sole proprietors and the self-employed without recourse. The grant program is available to both.

The grant program, by contrast, is similar to a City program that has distributed $1,000 prepaid debit cards to 40,000 households making $75,000 or less and have lost at least 25% of income due to the pandemic. That program is set to expand to more households soon. 

Thanks to Cumber’s initiative, small business owners across the historic districts, from small boutiques to spas to retail and beyond, are hoping to find much-needed relief in their mailboxes beginning in July. 

In June, City staff were still sifting through applications. The application went on the City website June 1 and, by the end of the day, 4,500 applications had been selected, with several businesses on the waiting list. Staff began reviewing applications the first week and were set to begin informing business owners in mid-June if they were approved, City spokeswoman Nikki Kimbleton said. 

As applications from among the first 4,500 were disqualified, others on the wait list became eligible, and the notifications were to be sent out on a rolling basis until all 4,500 qualifying businesses were identified. The grants are given on a first-come, first-served basis, and cards were going out 14 days after notification.

“This is going to be an as-we-go type of thing,” Kimbleton explained.

Those who get the debit cards in hand could use them for rent, mortgage, utilities and business expenses, and in June there were many business owners on both sides of the River waiting and hoping, making plans made for how the money would be spent.

One of those was Christian Thomsen and his wife, Dori, co-owners of Soluna Yoga + Spa on Park Street in 5 Points. The Thomsen’s studio was forced to close during the Coronavirus shutdown as bills continued to roll in. The couple applied for the grant and were waiting and hoping to hear from the City. By the second week in June, the two had cautiously reopened both parts of their business, serving a smaller number of clients and limiting yoga classes to eight. If they get a debit card, Thomsen said the couple would use the grant to pay their rent and day-to-day operating costs. In the meantime, they were doing what they could while waiting for relief by grant and by the gradual reopening of the economy.

“It is nice to be back and have some sense of normalcy,” he said of the studio’s measured reopening.

In San Marco, the owners of restaurants, boutiques, pubs, and other businesses had also put their welcome mats back out while hoping for grant relief.  Brittney Denman, owner of the Hendricks Avenue boutique, A Cut Above, had seen clients return to shop, but lamented that she was forced to take a big loss from seasonal merchandise that went unsold and will now not fetch anything near full price. When the Coronavirus closures began to cascade across the City, Denman had a shop full of Easter dresses and vacation clothing for people looking forward to Easter and Spring Break. By the time she was able to reopen her business at the end of May, they were still sitting on the racks and on shelves.

“Since everything has been shut down, people weren’t buying dresses they could wear places,” she explained. “We had loungewear, candles, that people could utilize during stay-at- home orders, but we did see a decrease in sales. Most of the stuff we sell is seasonal and people are nervous to shop. We have had to liquidate or clearance-out items that are brand new that nobody is needing. With that grant we could buy more inventory or start moving toward fall merchandise.”

About a mile south of her shop, also on Hendricks Avenue, Stu Green was facing a loss of a different kind and anticipating a different use for the grant if he got it.

Green owns a San Marco neighborhood bar called Posting House. Drinks are the primary source of pub’s revenue although the venue offered some limited food options pre-Coronavirus. With Posting House shut down for dine-in customers during the closures, Green had to pivot to a new business model selling package – that is, take-out — drinks.

“At first people supported us, they bought beer and wine and growlers. Once the restaurants opened up, we really did struggle to keep the doors open,” Green recalled. “Thanks to the federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and people really supporting us, we were able to survive those few weeks whilst we were waiting to reopen. We are really thankful for those. The city of Jacksonville grant is one way we can keep going through those tough times.” The Paycheck Protection Program is a U.S. Small Business Administration program that grants loans that may be forgiven if employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities.

If Green gets the City grant, he will use it for business expenses he would normally pay for with his credit card, like utilities such as cable, electricity and supplies. He has seen his business returning since reopening but times are still lean.

“That $2,000 will be such a help through June and July,” he explained. “Obviously, we are not making this year what we were making last year, so we are so grateful to the City of Jacksonville.”

Joe Carlucci, president of the San Marco Merchants Association, said that association members were excited and grateful for the opportunity to apply for the grants.

“I know for our businesses it was successful and a really good thing. It hit at a good time because the business reopenings happened on Friday (May 29) and then the $2,000 grant program hit on Monday (June 1) so that was very nice. If a bar or restaurant just opened, they got an additional source of income to use for what they needed. Everyone is thankful that it got passed through City Council unanimously.”

By Jennifer Edwards
Resident Community News

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