IRSC center teams with regional groups to help small businesses navigate covid aid
BY ANTHONY WESTBURY
In the spring of 2020, the full extent of COVID-19 was becoming alarmingly apparent on a daily basis.
Positive cases of COVID-19 soared from a handful statewide in early March to almost 1,000 by March 22. Less than a month later, by mid-April, the toll stood at 21,019 and 499 deaths.
Many businesses were forced to close or severely restrict operations in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. By the end of April 2020, 1 million Floridians had filed for unemployment benefits because of the pandemic. Nearly 30,000 cases had been reported by that time.
The situation was devastating for many small businesses, especially those that relied on face-to-face contact with customers. Within less than two weeks of the first two confirmed positive cases in Florida on March 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared a pandemic and Florida received $27 million in federal funds to combat the epidemic. Orlando theme parks closed in mid-March and universities began operating remotely after spring break.
Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all bars and nightclubs closed; restaurants were required to switch to takeout or delivery only.
STATE AND FEDERAL HELP ARRIVES
Federal and state financial assistance began to try to stanch the wounds. Assistance came first from the state through its Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan program. This particular loan program provides small business owners with interest free loans to assist the business in addressing disaster related economic injury and bridge the business to a longer term financial solution such as a Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loan. The Florida Small Business Development Center at Indian River State College [FSBDC at IRSC] assisted Treasure Coast business owners accessing more than $3 million in emergency bridge loans.
Next, the federal government launched its first round of Paycheck Protection Program, which offered forgivable loans for small businesses. In December, the Trump administration unveiled the Consolidated Appropriation Act [CARES], which funded a second round of PPP payments and also established Economic Injury Disaster Loans and Targeted EIDLs for shuttered venues.
It was left up to individual counties, chambers of commerce and economic development organizations to facilitate applications for CARES grants. The FSBDC was designated as the state’s principal provider of small business assistance.
On the Treasure Coast, the FSBDC at IRSC began to coordinate relief efforts with counties, in tandem with economic development agencies, most notably in St. Lucie and Indian River counties.
“We received assistance from all four Treasure Coast municipalities to set up a small business assistance program [which became the Virtual Small Business Recovery Center at IRSC],” director Tom Kindred recalled.
“We provided ancillary support for St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River and Okeechobee counties, but did more in St. Lucie and Indian River,” Kindred said. “We reviewed, processed and submitted applications for assistance to counties for final approval of the grants. We also helped create financials, P&Ls [profit and loss statements] and other service as needed.”
GRANTS OFFERED FOR MOST VULNERABLE
In St. Lucie County, $55 million was available starting in the summer of 2020, according to Pete Tesch, president of the Economic Development Council of St. Lucie County.
“Roughly one third of the money came in the first tranche,” Tesch recalled. “That amounted to about $3 million for Small Business Assistance Grants for businesses that had been forced to shut down under directives from the governor. These included restaurants, bars, gyms and some retail operations.
“The smallest, most vulnerable — those with fewer than 10 employees — were done first,” Tesch said. “Tom Kindred offered to provide us with ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ help in processing the grant applications.”
Tesch recalled that navigating and providing the information requirements from the counties at first was a rather challenging proposition. To help review grant applications, the council hired 12 IRSC graduates.
“There was a bit of red tape, but we came up with a consistent way to deal with some very frustrated and scared small business owners.”
Later, Phase Two of the program expanded to include help for businesses with between 11 and 20 employees. In Phase Three help arrived for firms with up to 50 employees. The grant dollars available increased with the size of the companies.
ADDITIONAL FUNDS ON THE WAY
In all, more than 300 St. Lucie County businesses received assistance. EDC and SBDC processed 351 applications worth $2.7 million. A good portion of them received full finding, Tesch noted.
There are still 71 applications outstanding after program funding was exhausted Dec. 31. However, Tesch believes the county will be able to assist those left on the list in the near future with an additional $1 million in new funds.
“We’ll be continuing our relationship with SBDC. We learned a lot about small business assistance grants,” Tesch said. In the future, the EDC will focus on entrepreneurship training and helping small business access capital resources.
“We currently have no mechanism to provide micro loans,” Tesch explained. He said, however, that EDC will make use of SBDC’s network of consultants to offer advice and strategy to business owners in need of continuing help. A hybrid arrangement in concert with state and local banks may become a reality in the future, Tesch hopes.
“We’re hearing that $5,000 to $20,000 loans are not effective for local banks,” Tesch said, adding that future help in these categories may require setting up community finance corporations in the future.
“IRSC grads are still working on loan applications, and the college’s contribution has been very valuable. Tom and his staff worked seven days a week to make it all happen. I think we were able to do some good stuff together,” Tesch concluded.
LOANS HELP PAY BILLS
It was a similar situation in Indian River County. There, the Chamber of Commerce also worked closely with FSBDC at IRSC, according to Helene Caseltine, the chamber’s economic development director.
Although funds from Indian River County are exhausted, Caseltine noted that more than 200 small businesses had received assistance totaling $2.2 million.
“It’s been extremely helpful to local business. The money has been used to pay utilities, rent, help retain staff and buy supplies,” Caseltine said.
Indian River County efforts focused on businesses with fewer than 25 FTEs, including the owner, she noted.
The county concentrated on the hardest-hit sector, the hospitality industry.
“Hotels, bars, tour operators. Everyone took a hit,” Caseltine recalled. “They were decimated.”
County grants became available after the second round of state-mandated closings for hair salons, yoga studios, gyms and nail salons during the months of April and May.
A third round of grants were made available in January, Caseltine said, when criteria were expanded to include nonmedical services such as tattoo parlors. At that time, assistance was boosted to $10,000.
Today, Caseltine said many Vero Beach businesses are back in hiring mode and the local economy is picking up.
“I ask them how things are and they say they are doing better,” she said. “[Local] people and visitors are coming back. We’re hoping Congress will do more [to help]. We have about 30 businesses that still need help.”
Financial aid and hard work produces success
BY ANTHONY WESTBURY
It was a joint effort by many county departments and regional business organizations and college centers that enabled small businesses to begin to recover financially from the pandemic. Here are several examples of their efforts and the businesses that benefited.
The grant application process was handled by county departments without the need for much SBDC involvement.
Joan Goodrich, executive director of the Business Development Board of Martin County, said more than 400 small businesses were helped with a total of $4 million in funding.
“We didn’t need help with CARES Act applications,” Goodrich said “but we do work closely with SBDC on business training. And we love our partnership with them through the Business Accelerator Program, it’s our fifth anniversary with that. So far, 100 small business owners have completed the program and received a total of $70,000 in micro grants. SBDC at IRSC have been great partners and we’d like to do more with them. We particularly appreciate the help we receive from assistant director Katherine Culhane at IRSC’s Chastain Campus.”
Goodrich noted that 95 percent of Martin County businesses employ fewer than 20 people. The hospitality industry was hardest-hit by pandemic restrictions, she said. Most other small business sectors seemed able to adapt to the difficult circumstances.
Goodrich noted a recent business confidence survey showed business owners are feeling fairly positive about the future.
County staff processed grant applications without the need for outside help, according to Okeechobee Economic Development Corp. Business Manager Kaylee King.
However, her organization does work closely with SBDC at IRSC, she said. She noted that her own organization is in need of a new business plan and they are working on developing a business retention and expansion program with SBDC help.
“Our airport manager is working with Tom Kindred on a new strategic plan for the industrial park at the airport,” King said.
As far as business recovery in the county, it’s a mixed bag, King said.
“Some industries are doing better than they’ve ever done. Vehicle sales, for instance are up 300 percent in some cases, with demand outstripping inventory. But some businesses haven’t bounced back. Restaurants and others are still down. Many small businesses are surviving using volunteers to operate with smaller payrolls. Yes, there is a need for more continuing support. In our area, tourism is a real factor, [despite difficulties though] businesses make it work and few, if any, have had to close.”
TREASURE COAST BUSINESSES
THE GARDEN OF ESTHER
Esther Chin is a Vero Beach transplant from Malaysia via New York City. She operates a one-woman specialty gourmet pasta business, The Garden of Esther, selling her one-of-a-kind products either via the Vero Beach Farmers Market or directly to a growing contingent of small, local restaurants.
She launched her business at the farmers market in 2018 and at first faced an uphill battle to educate customers about the wholesomeness of her pasta.
“I used recipes to inspire and educate them,” she said. “I used a lot of Facebook ads online. I’ve been at the market for three years now. It’s an amazing, supportive community to live in, and despite the pandemic, I owe a lot of my success to the community.”
Chin rents commercial kitchen space to create her all-natural products, but in the future wants to have her own space. She was already working with FSBDC at IRSC consultant Frank Fink on a new business plan to expand when the pandemic hit.
“I lost a lot of money during the first months of COVID. Restaurants weren’t buying, so I went looking for the college’s help on how to pivot [in my business].
“Eventually, I would like to open my own [retail] store, and I will need a budget for that,” Chin said. “My mentor told me about small business assistance grants he applied for me. Frank made it a very easy, smooth process that saved me a lot of time. I probably wouldn’t have done it without his help.
“I was doing pretty well [in 2021], but the $10,000 grant will allow me to expand. Now’s the time for my own space. I’ve reached the ceiling where I am now.”
Chin received her grant money in recent weeks and is looking for a new location for her kitchen.
WOOD N SPOON
Helen and her chef husband Michael Wood were operating two branches of their breakfast and lunch restaurant and were about to open a third location when the pandemic hit. The third site was immediately put on hold for several months, Helen Wood recalled.
As well as operating out of the Vero Beach Museum of Art and their original restaurant location on Oslo Road, the Woods wanted to open space at Royal Palm Pointe. Yet, just as they waited for their final inspection, state restrictions put the expansion on hold until May 2020.
State restrictions meant most of the staff couldn’t work, Wood said. Most of their employees made arrangements to live with friends or family, she said.
“People understood,” she said, “ we had to do all we could to save the business.”
It wasn’t until July that the business approached normalcy, although the Museum of Art is closed until 2022. The Woods survived by pickup and delivery services.
“We received $5,000 and I used it to pay off our purveyors,” Wood said.
“Indian River County staff approached us about applying for a small business assistance grant. We didn’t know about what grants were available. We were afraid it might be a scam. It came at the perfect time. The PPP program had helped us stay open before, but once that ended, we had to juggle [finances], especially for our purveyors.
“Now it’s definitely not a normal season but it’s better than last year. Numbers for March improved year over year, but we’re still down overall. But we’ve been grateful to do all we can. We serve very healthy, fresh food and have a lot of senior customers who appreciate it’s all homemade and clean.”
NOTIONS & POTIONS
Beryl Muise celebrated five years in business in late 2020, but it was a rough year for her one-woman retail store, Notions & Potions in downtown Fort Pierce.
Muise describes her store as an artisan boutique that sells mostly locally made candles, jewelry, natural dog treats and clothing, purses, T-shirts. She has a candle bar where patrons can book a party and create their own fragrances.
Notions & Potions was shut down for almost two months last year. Muise was able to adapt to the restrictions in creative ways, including turning to Facebook to market handmade face masks. She received 400 orders in three days. Volunteers worked long hours to complete the orders.
Muise was able to partner with a fellow downtown business, Varsity Sports, to use its commercial embroidery machine to stitch the masks.
Muise received a $5,000 small business assistance grant and used it to pay her rent. She said she didn’t find the application too complicated, but that it took a while to assemble all the required paperwork. A county employee stopped by personally to pick up a copy of her lease to facilitate the grant.
“I thought that was super-awesome,” Muise said.
She applied for the grant in September and received her money in November, her fifth anniversary in business.
Her retail business is able to operate fairly normally, after capacity restrictions were progressively eased through the second half of 2020.
Business is super-slow,” Muise reported, “definitely not as busy as pre-COVID, but I have wholesale accounts that are keeping me afloat.”
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