CHARLOTTE, NC (Charlotte Observer) – With Charlotte’s Economy to close to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, small businesses have used their dollars, hoping to survive the coming recovery. But some are already finding that they might not be able to do so.
While demand for hotels, restaurants and other sectors of the economy is expected to return, along with many lost jobs, businesses still have to pay their bills in the meantime.
And with small business support that is slow to distribute or hard to access, some find the light of an end to the recession out of reach.
One of the first victims of the economic contraction was Lemon Love, a nail spa that opened in upscale neighborhoods in 2019. With most nail spas and other salons closed, owner Tracy Martin has said last Friday in an Instagram post that the spa will not reopen after the pandemic.
âPlease continue to reach out and support these companies, there are so many who have put their life and their savings into their brand and their business including myself and trust me when I say that they should know that you still care about yourself, âshe wrote.
Charlotte’s small businesses will be the hardest hit by the economic downturn, most officials agree.
There are 28,798 companies in Mecklenburg County with fewer than 50 employees, according to county data. It is likely that in a year this number will be significantly lower.
âAnytime there is a downturn, weaker companies will not be able to survive,â said John Connaughton, professor of economics at UNC Charlotte.
SUPPORT, NOT STIMULUS
Most of the aid to small businesses has been referred to as stimulus measures. In reality, loans and grants to family restaurants and local body shops are not going to grow the economy, but just keep businesses as up to date as possible.
Policymakers try to make it as easy as possible for a business to take over when trade resumes. It is much easier for companies if they keep their lease or continue to pay their workers.
âRunning a business in slow motion is much easier in the long run than resuscitating it,â said Chad Turner, president of the Charlotte LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
But staying afloat when your doors are closed can be a full-time job.
Hollis Nixon, whose company Core Concrete creates custom countertops and sinks, has spent most of her time lately trying to get help for herself and her business.
âI’m just tired. It’s exhausting. It’s more hours than a full-time job,â she said. âAs soon as apps come out, whether it’s midnight or 4 a.m. morning, I immediately jump to the computer. “
His company, which has three employees, saw its new income fall to zero. No one needs a new bar for their restaurant when all bars are closed. She asked for anything that could help her get through the crisis, including federal funds, emergency grants and regional grants.
Like thousands of other business owners, Hollis doesn’t know which of the things she asked for. It is scary. âYou don’t know what’s going to happen, how much it’s going to be, when it’s going to happen,â she said.
The challenge of keeping small businesses from shutting down forever is a local response criticized as insignificant and a federal response beset by technical glitches and access issues.
Hundreds of billions of dollars in small business aid have been approved by Congress, but many small business owners have reported difficulty finding banks to get loans from.
Once they find a bank, usually after some difficulty, they are left to wait for a federal system plagued with technical glitches and downtime.
For a few days, many Wells Fargo customers were excluded from the program because the bank hit a regulatory cap on its assets. The Federal Reserve eased that cap on Wednesday, letting the bank participate fully.
“Those very small businesses that probably need the help the most may not be able to devote the time and resources to navigate a complex system designed to help them that is proving difficult even for large banks,” he said. said Stephanie Few, a Charleston partner at the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson.
“How many closed their doors before they could start the process?” Few have said.
On top of that, the $ 349 billion federal small business assistance program known as the Paycheck Protection Program is in such demand that it will likely run out of funds soon. There is broad support in Congress to put more money into it, but lawmakers have yet to come to an agreement.
The response to the economic crisis from the leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg has also been weak, compared to what other municipalities in the region have put in place.
Mecklenburg County spent a package of 5 million dollars to provide small business loans with low interest rates on Tuesday. This program would provide, if each loan was for a maximum amount of $ 35,000, approximately 142 loans in total.
Despite being approved by an 8-1 vote, many county commissioners did not believe the program had come close enough to prevent small businesses from closing.
“I just think it’s such a drop in the bucket.” Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell said at Tuesday’s meeting. She voted in favor of the program.
âI don’t know what the alternative is, but what I’m saying is this is such a crisis for so many people and it just doesn’t affect it. It’s like putting on a bandage – it’s not even big enough to be called a bandage, it’s so small, âshe said.
Commissioner Pat Cotham voted against the proposal because she thought it was too trivial to help many small businesses.
“I’m just afraid they will be left behind,” she said at Tuesday’s meeting.
While other municipalities, including Gaston County, have put in place tens of millions of dollars in programs, the city of Charlotte has not put in place a comparable relief program.
City council plans to vote on a million dollar micro-business loan program on Monday. But some officials, including city manager Marcus Jones, are unwilling to build a major program until the extent of federal and state aid to the city is known.
With funding from Raleigh and Washington just weeks away and businesses suffering right now, this program may come too late for many.
THE WAITING GAME
In the meantime, for small businesses, whether alone or with government support, they are stuck in an unbearable waiting game.
Frank La Fragola Jr. had spent the past year investing around $ 3 million in a second location at his Matthews restaurant, Jekyll & Hyde Taphouse and Grill, in Belmont.
About sixty employees have been trained. The grand opening was scheduled for March 19. But on March 17, Governor Roy Cooper ordered all bars and dining rooms closed for everything except take-out.
âYou’ve been waiting all year for this to happen. And then two days before that happens, all your dreams are shattered, âhe said. âWe’ve been paying these bills for months and months without anything coming in. Mother Nature is sometimes a cruel person. “
And because its workers had yet to receive their first paycheck, many are struggling to get unemployment benefits, La Fragola said.
As of Thursday, 509,693 residents of North Carolina have filed for unemployment since March 16. Many new hires have reported problems with the state’s unemployment benefit infrastructure, which is collapsing under record demand.
Despite the cruel timing, La Fragola is one of the richest cases.
With the help of PPP funds, he believes he will be able to weather the crisis and eventually open the restaurant. Many others, he says, will not be so lucky.