To keep her Pigtown food business alive during the pandemic, Sylva Lin did an about-face and transitioned from mostly corporate catering, which dried up, to become more of a neighborhood grocer.
Switching gears to meet demand during the health crisis would have been nearly impossible, Lin said, without the help of several emergency loans and grants that helped pay the rent and employees.
But even as life slowly returns to normal, Lin and other Baltimore merchants say they’re far from out of the woods and still need help. Many small-business owners are struggling with keeping a venture they’ve had to reinvent afloat.
Lin and others are hoping for relief through a recently expanded emergency COVID-19 program run by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Low-interest loans and small grants are available now to more businesses than ever through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, or EIDL program, SBA officials say.
But because of processing backlogs, efforts to prevent fraud and a general lack of awareness about the program, funds have been slow to trickle down to businesses when they say they need it most.
“We’ve all invested the money that we’re grateful for, and it’s gotten us to this point,” Lin said. “But we need something to sustain ourselves to get through the next year. It’s scary.”
The portal where Lin checks on the progress of her loan has shown an “in process” status for months, and she was told her tax information still is being verified. She’s counting on the program to help sustain her newly expanded Culinary Architecture market, where neighborhood residents and university students buy produce and meat, plant-based products and homemade meat pies, among other grocery staples. As the catering business slowly comes back, she wants to expand her commercial kitchen.
The SBA initially launched the disaster loan program last year, then opened an expanded version to new as well as existing recipients in April. Last month, officials announced efforts to boost outreach to businesses.
“Getting these remaining EIDL funds into the hands of businesses is critical,” a senior SBA official said during a June media briefing. “We’re encouraging as many small businesses and nonprofits to apply for this economic relief aid as possible.”
The program is designed to help small businesses meet obligations and expenses that could have been met if not for the health crisis.
In early April, low-interest loans of up to $500,000 became available based on economic injury, an increase from last year’s cap of $150,000.
Two grants now are available through the program as well, one for $10,000 and one for $5,000. The smaller grants, first offered in late April, are earmarked for businesses with fewer than 10 employees in low-income communities that lost more than 50% of revenue during an eight-week period after the start of the pandemic compared with a year earlier. To be considered for either or both grants, a business must apply for a loan. Businesses can be awarded grants even if they are denied a loan or decide not to accept it.
SBA officials say they are working their way through a backlog of applicants stemming from an extensive process to verify tax information and prevent fraud. Only a fraction of the billions of dollars in available grants have been disbursed.
As of a July 15 SBA update, just $2.4 billion of $30 billion allocated for the $10,000 “targeted EIDL Advance” grants had been approved. And only $1 billion in $5 billion of the $5,000 “supplemental targeted advance” grants had been approved. In Maryland, 5,500 applicants received $46 million in the larger grants and just over 4,000 applicants received $20.3 million in $5,000 grants.
LaTonya Turnage, who was forced to close her Elite Secrets Bridal shop on North Charles Street for four months during the pandemic, was notified that she qualifies for $15,000 of the EIDL grants.
“Everything went through and I got approved, but then it was deposited to the wrong bank account,” Turnage said. “I don’t know how they got the wrong account information.”
She is still waiting, though she was assured that the funds are being reprocessed. She’s hoping to put the money toward a planned second location, now vacant space at One Charles Center on North Charles Street, where she plans to open a bridal design studio with the help of The Downtown Boost, a Downtown Partnership program to support small, minority-owned businesses downtown.
“One thing COVID has taught me is save more and spend less,” said Turnage, who said the economic crisis left her behind on bills. At the same time, she needs to hire a store manager to expand.
Some small businesses say an EIDL loan may be their last option, with banks unwilling to offer struggling businesses commercial loans at favorable rates.
“In order for us to stay where we are and to grow and be a sustainable business, we need capital,” said Joe Carlson, who works at Charm City Books in Pigtown with his wife, bookstore owner Daven Ralston. “Without capital to help and make it through the next phase, who knows.”
Charm City Books joined the collection of “mom-and-pop” merchants along Washington Boulevard about half a year before the pandemic shuttered businesses and gathering spots.
To stay afloat, Ralston and Carlson changed the store’s business model. Before COVID, the store relied on walk-in traffic and drew people from the neighborhood and beyond for daily events — book signings, performances, workshops and puzzle nights.
Ralston got a $10,300 loan and a $2,000 grant in EIDL’s first round last year, which helped her invest in the store’s website, shipping and delivery. She and her husband transformed their event space into storage for inventory and bought production equipment to make videos about local authors and new releases, which they post on social media.
Then in April, Ralston was notified that she could apply for an EIDL loan increase. She did, while making plans to use it to reopen event rental space and upgrade digital programming that’s become crucial to reach customers.
Three months later, the increase in her loan is still processing, said Ralston, who was not approved for another grant.
“We’ve called a couple of times to check in, and they don’t have updates,” she said. “We lost our initial community events space. We don’t have that opportunity to host events, which was a huge part of our income plan.”
Nakeisha Turner, manager of Pennsylvania Avenue Main Street program, said a few businesses in the West Baltimore neighborhood had applied for another SBA loan program, the Paycheck Protection Program, designed to help businesses keep workers on the payroll. But she was unaware of any seeking EIDL loans or grants along the corridor, an official arts and entertainment district that qualifies for tax breaks to help in revitalization.
Some have been hesitant to apply for loans or even grants, she said, because of confusion about what may or may not be forgivable and concerns about fraud. Since the start of the pandemic, the SBA has warned of scammers targeting small-business owners.
Besides working to prevent fraud and boost outreach, the SBA said it’s taking steps to reduce the EIDL program’s processing backlogs, decrease application review times and make the process more transparent. Those goals are part of the Biden administration’s plans to move the program’s oversight to the Office of Capital Access from the Office of Disaster Assistance, which also must handle requests from victims of hurricanes and wildfires.
Improved efficiency in the relief program can’t come soon enough for Ricky Johnson, owner of Italian restaurant Forno on Baltimore’s west side.
The restaurant that once kept busy with convention center and theater diners was closed half of last year and part of this year. It operates now with a limited menu, hours and staff.
Johnson, who lost 80% of sales during last year’s closures, received an EIDL loan last year. On April 8, he applied for a newly available loan increase. At first, the process seemed to go smoothly. He was notified that he qualified for the supplemental grant of $5,000 and received that in early June. It helped somewhat, covering some short-term payroll costs.
But Forno received no funding through the SBA’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which he was counting on as a lifeline. He’s now anxiously awaiting word on the EIDL loan.
“The perception is that no one needs it because the economy is open and restaurants are busy, but in my case they’re not coming in the same way they used to, and the costs are still there,” Johnson said. “The longer the wait goes on, the more you need it. That’s the cruel part of it.”