WA COVID-19 relief grants lift Tacoma small businesses

Jennifer Richardson has tried to catch every Gov. Jay Inslee press conference since March, each time wondering what today’s coronavirus news meant for the young Tacoma cafe she owns with her two sisters, Adina and Sarah Joslyn.

Was support for small businesses that employ more than half of the private sector workers in Washington state on the table today?

One night in early April, the governor announced a small footprint grant program for microenterprises. Richardson immediately turned to his computer, followed his instructions to the app, and began filling in the blanks.

By this point, she was quite used to asking for money to save Red Elm Cafe.

She had previously applied for an Economic Industry Disaster Loan, an ongoing small business administration program that involved a long application, as well as a Paycheck Protection Program loan. The first request was long and confusing, she said; PPP’s request was simpler, but the bank initially turned it down, leaving the cafe to stumble across the April quicksand with no relief.

Rather than staying open for take-out as the state’s stay-at-home orders began in March, the sisters closed the cafe and laid off their handful of employees, sending them home with the remaining perishables. – bread, butter, milk, eggs.

Richardson, a former healthcare worker, believed America would turn around quickly; her sisters were “a little less optimistic,” she said. As the weeks passed, she knew they would need more than luck and courage to survive the deleterious effects of the pandemic.

They needed the money.

The state program – $ 10 million distributed to more than 1,000 small businesses in installments of up to $ 10,000 – was funded by a combination of reserves from Working Washington and a tranche of the disaster relief plan. $ 200 million approved by the state legislature in March. Unlike PPP, only companies with up to 10 employees were eligible.

Unlike the federal program, too, state funding was much less restrictive.

“The PPP money couldn’t be used to buy food, to buy inventory, and we had to buy absolutely everything back,” said Richardson. “By paying rent and utilities, and even paying us a little bit so we could keep paying our mortgages and rent, our bank account had really gone down. The amount of money we had was not huge.

In just 11 days in April, the state received more than 25,000 applications from businesses in the 39 counties, leaving the award process to local economic development councils. Food companies represented 14 of the 76 original recipients in Pierce County, including several more in Tacoma: Airport Tavern, Celebrity Cake Studio, Devil’s Reef, Kim Anh Restaurant and North China Gardens. Elsewhere in the county, awards were given to Fox Island Grocery, Frey Family Farm in Ashford, Java Angels in Bonney Lake and Gig Harbor, LeLe and Occasions Coffee and Crepes.

A second round of funding has awarded dozens of other companies, including 10 more in Pierce County. Southern Kitchen was the only restaurant on this list.

A few thousand dollars may not seem like a lot of money compared to the billions that steal from federal programs, but for these local businesses, the money can move mountains.

The fact that Red Elm was chosen meant the cafe could reopen, Richardson said.

“We did not foresee such a catastrophe,” she said. “We are anticipating snowstorms or windstorms, a power outage – we’ve had them since we’ve been in business, and we’ve handled it really well – but it was bigger than we expected.”

The Working Washington Grants asked personal questions about how the money would be spent, while the PPP application consisted of a few simple pages of basic company information and financial data.

“You actually had to write a story about how you were going to make the money or why it was important. I was just being honest,” Richardson said. “It would mean we could buy inventory, and that would mean we could open our doors. “

SMALL GRANT, BIG HELP

At the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Cassandra Williams was faced with a similar dilemma.

His restaurant and bakery business, Love by the Slice, should have been “knee-deep” at weddings, baby showers and other festive events.

“When COVID hit, we just had this complete lull: nothing,” she told The News Tribune in an interview.

She applied for and got a small PPP loan, which kept her employees working, but the prospect of an unconditional state grant “presented a huge opportunity.”

“I had a dream with this purse,” she says. “I closed my eyes and wondered, ‘If I had $ 10,000, what would I do with it? »I need the right support and I want to invest in my people. If I take care of my employees, they will take care of my business.

As a black business owner, she knew she was already beating all odds.

“When you’re a small business like me, it’s not an unknown reality that minority businesses are often under-capitalized,” she said.

According to a 2017 U.S. Department of Commerce report, minority-owned businesses are less likely to receive loans, and when they do, they tend to be about half the amount given to their white counterparts. They also tend to pay higher interest rates, in addition to starting with a lot less capital. In an analysis of the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission on Racial Inequality in the United States, the Economic Policy Institute found that the median black family in 2016 held only a tenth of the wealth of a white family.

“Every penny counts,” Williams said. “So when you have an opportunity or access to income that is just focused on operations, I mean it’s huge because you can really leverage what you have and take those dollars and go a lot more. far down the road. “

The $ 10,000 grant means that, for the first time, she has the financial confidence to hire experienced workers, instead of just hiring to “fill the gaps.”

“This is capital that I probably needed when I first opened the doors,” she continued. “You have to do so many things yourself. You use your own resources to get started, and you simply work with small teams. A lot of people burn themselves out and fail.

Now, rather than just scratching and wishing the best, she is looking beyond the pandemic.

“It just gave me the flexibility to take the resources I already had in hand, to focus on being able to keep the doors open, but we were also able to be healed with the funding,” he said. she declared.

The cushion also allowed her to develop Revive Washington, a “box and drop” food program that she started with a friend that distributes supplies to at-risk neighbors who can’t make it to their local food bank.

“I feel really blessed to have received the award because it doesn’t happen to people every day,” said Williams. “It was right on time.”

This story was originally published 11 August 2020 13:05.

Kristine Sherred joined The News Tribune in December 2019, after a decade in Chicago where she worked for restaurants, a liquor wholesaler and a food bookstore. Previously, she covered the food sector for Industry Dive and William Reed. Find her on Instagram @kcsherred and Twitter @kriscarasher.

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