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Economic Lifeline

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Although 38,000 small businesses in Florida applied, only about 1,000 of them received emergency bridge loans to help them survive the coronavirus pandemic. The state doled out a total of $49.4 million from the interest-free loan program, with the majority of eligible small businesses receiving $50,000 each.

Lee County businessman Ken Behm was fortunate to have received two $50,000 loans. Behm experienced a double-whammy of sorts, because his two small companies in Lee County have two different LLC structures, with two sets of bills and payrolls, requiring two different loans. 

As managing member of the American Carpet and Tile Cleaning LLC in Cape Coral and Cleaning HeadQuarters LLC in Fort Myers, Behm’s businesses hit their lowest points in April and May, because his residential and commercial clients weren’t needing his janitorial supplies or cleaning services when they were closed or weren’t generating revenue. While he normally services scores of local restaurants, he didn’t serve any for three months. “The bottom fell out of the cleaning service,” Behm says. “Everybody got cut back. It affected all of us.”

When the state’s interest-free loan process opened at the end of March, Behm reached out for application assistance from the Florida Small Business Development Center at Florida Gulf Coast University. The advice he received helped him understand where to go, what to do and how to fill out the forms.

“I probably wouldn’t have done it without them. It basically helped me pay the bills when this whole thing fell apart,” Behm says. “I would have had to lay off people and I would have been behind on payments and had issues with creditors because of late payments. They made it possible to keep everything current. I was able to stay open.”

As if financial stress from the pandemic weren’t enough, small business owners learned this year that the process to seek governmental funding assistance had the potential to escalate their anxiety. They often needed help understanding the rules and navigating the paperwork to receive funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law at the end of March.

“Some got very frustrated with the grant application pro- cess. It’s an arduous task. The rules were very, very confusing for people,” says Suzanne Specht, assistant director of the Small Business Development Center at FGCU’s Lutgert College of Business.

The mission of the center is to help small business owners succeed by giving them advice and helping them navigate the rules and regulations for funding assistance. Although there wasn’t enough funding to help every business this year, Specht said the center has a lot of success stories.

“I wish we could have helped more clients, more small business owners,” she says.

Collier County received 379 applications from small businesses requesting one-time grants up to $25,000 from the CollierCARES Small Business Relaunch and Rehire Program’s nearly $10 million, intended to offset costs of business interruption for firms with 50 or fewer full-time employees. In order to process applications in a timely fashion and allocate all of the monies by the Dec. 30 deadline, the county brought in more than 20 additional staff members to review applications and to assure proper documentation is received from businesses.

“Anybody who made it in by the deadline, we are working with them. We are working with folks as much as we can,” says Sean Callahan, executive director of corporate business operations in Collier County. “We should fund all 379 who got their correct documentation in by the deadline.”

Jamie Ross, who founded Naples Culinary Walks, didn’t qualify for CollierCARES funding because her business operates out of an office at her home. Eligibility criteria required that businesses must occupy leased commercial space. “My business is really me,” says Ross, whose food industry tours halted with the closing of restaurants and the lack of clients because of travel restrictions and public uncertainty. “There were loans I wasn’t brave enough to apply for because I wasn’t sure about my ability to repay.”

The pandemic was especially ill-timed for Jennifer Bouchard-Holderman, who on Oct. 1 marked the first anniversary of her upscale Naples resale shop. Happily Ever After Consignment Boutique sells a mix of clothing and accessories for men and children.

“I had a decent January and February, but then I had to close my doors all the way until May 1,” she says. “I had half of a season, which is better than no season at all. I had reserves for summer, but I had to dip into those finances to help me flow through season. I had to get really creative. Bills still have to get paid.”

A single mother with a marketing degree, Bouchard-Holderman started buying and selling goods on eBay, but this is her first business. Because her store is new, she said she didn’t qualify for the loan offered by her credit union, which didn’t participate in the CARES Act. She was able to apply for CollierCARES funds, although she was not sure about the outcome. “Every time I think my application is complete, they send me another email saying, ‘I need this and this and this,’” she says.

Despite the pandemic setback and a 4% rent increase after her first year, Bouchard-Holderman remains optimistic about the new season and for the eventual growth and expansion of her business. “My goal is to have a second location within a few years in North Naples,” she says.

Photo Credit: Getty

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