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Local Entrepreneurs Organize to Survive Coronavirus Shutdowns (Pinellas County, Florida)

Community organizations are working to develop a local business loan program for microbusinesses that don’t qualify for  federal and state loans announced this week in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re issuing an “all call” for help and asking entrepreneurs to speak up about the increasingly urgent needs in areas such as South St. Petersburg.

– Gypsy C. Gallardo for The One Community Partner Network

In Tampa Bay and across the nation, African Americans may be among the hardest hit by the shutdowns and slowdowns in the wave of coronavirus response this past week. This is in part because black workers are disproportionately represented in the part-time, hourly and gig sectors of the workforce. Here in Pinellas County, they are twice as likely than their white neighbors to work in service jobs in hotels, restaurants and other venues that are drastically slashing work hours.

But the challenges are equally severe for African American entrepreneurs in the region, many of whom are witnessing an immediate fall-out from the crisis. Some have seen their customer flows shrivel to one-third or less of their typical volumes.

As stories of the struggle compound daily, several community organizations have joined forces to ask for a customized response to the crisis.

They say currently available federal and state emergency loans are not able to support many in need, in part due to requirements that are prohibitive for a sizable portion of the region’s minority-owned businesses. Requirements such as minimum employee/contractor thresholds, personal guarantees, and minimum credit scores will prevent many entrepreneurs from accessing the help some urgently need to stay afloat.

The Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corporation, in partnership with the One Community Plan team and Pinellas County Urban League, has formulated a proposal for a new COVID-19 Special Purpose Loan Pool (SPLP) that meets the needs of businesses unable to access other recovery resources.

A document released yesterday says the SPLP would be tailored to enhance the state and federal programs enacted in recent days, while meeting the pressing needs of microenterprises in particular. As one example, the newly-announced Florida emergency business loan program requires a minimum of two contractors or employees for applicants; the new COVID-19 SPLP will require only one employee or contractor, which can include the business owner.

That’s a make-or-break factor for African American entrepreneurs in Pinellas County. The latest Census data show that 97% of black-owned entrepreneurs in St. Petersburg operate their businesses solo, without paid employees or year-round contractors.

But the new loan pool is far from a done deal. Organizers are still in talks with funding sources, and say they need more entrepreneurs to speak up in order to provide adequate data for policy makers and funders seeking to understand the dimensions of the crisis.

“Our frontline staff are gathering data daily, but we need to reach many more entrepreneurs who are seeing an immediate hit to their top and bottom lines,” says Albert Lee, CEO of the Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corporation (called BBIC for short).

Lee, along with Watson Haynes, CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League, is asking local business owners to fill out a brief 3-question survey to gather more insight on the magnitude of their downturn, if any.

“It may be months before we understand the full toll on community business owners,” says Haynes, “but the quicker we can assemble data, the better equipped we are to push for help.”

The survey, linked here, will also help organizers keep in touch with business owners as recovery resources come on-line in the weeks ahead.

Below are just a few of the stories heard and seen over the past seven days. Add your own story to the One Community business file by completing the business impact survey.

Event Supply Chain Businesses

Across the board, businesses that earn their bread-and-butter from special events are devastated by the dozens of events cancelled and indefinitely postponed. Tiffany Moore, who hosted the successful launch of a new African Bazaar in February with 20+ vendors present, was forced to cancel the March event which means a loss of vendor and sales revenue. Sarah Davis Bellamy of Signature Graphics & Printing says she’s experiencing continued customer cancellations on orders in que, due to event cancellations. Her firm would ordinarily print hundreds of t-shirts, flyers, and signs in the spring and early summer.

The collapse of the event supply chain is having a reverberating effect among caterers, event promoters, AV techs, graphic designers, media outlets that promote events, event security services, venues that lease space for events, printers, florists and others.

Helena Josephs of Island Flavors N’ Tings, who normally does a thriving catering line, is feeling the shift. She issued a notice via social media and email to let customers know she’s still there for direct door-to-door delivery, if needed. Lottie Cuthbertson, a nurse educator and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) candidate said she’d had three teams scheduled to conduct courses twice in March, but that all events were cancelled early this week.

The owners of SpeedPro Printing (Michael and Vern McKenny) tell of similar woes. Vern says “Our sales have almost hit zero. We are frantically cutting expenses and will probably layoff our employees next week. We are in the process of contacting state, local agencies and other businesses we owe in order to work out some type of reduction, or deferment without penalties.”

The Business of Beauty

The beauty industry is one of the largest retail sector in South St. Petersburg. Businesses in this field are suffering the loss of half to two-thirds of their normal customer traffic, according to feedback gathered by the One Community team.

Marilyn Lopez of Marilyn’s Hair Salon reports that her team of four stylists typically do 150 to 175 heads per week. From Thursday to Saturday this week, which are usually the busiest days of the week, her book was cut to only 18 appointments total. Ramona Elizabeth of Natural Vanity has taken to social media to promote walk-in business. She reported on Facebook last Wednesday that two of her three appointments cancelled.

Leslie Hayes Coley owns several beauty-related brands (Dyvine Appointments Salon, Hair Loss Clinic & Training Institute, and The Heiress). She says the COVID-19 slowdown cut her clientele as a stylist and eliminated her China-origin imports of beauty products which she retails and uses in her salon. “If we sell hair in our salons or product from China this also affects our profits. I ordered lashes so I can begin to do them in salon two weeks ago. Now they are on hold because of the virus. If it isn’t already in the beauty supply store, it won’t be for a while.”

Commercial Cleaning Firms

Dontriel Lawson, co-owner of JAPOSID Cleaning and Ada McFarley, owner, Never Late Property Cleaning, report a major downturn in commercial and residential jobs on the books when “stay home” orders began to take effect. McFarley said on Saturday, she’d had 30 scheduled cleans reduced to 15 in just the past week, due to customer cancellations. Her primary concern is ensuring that her hourly workers are aware of avenues of help.

Lawson made an impassioned plea in response to a Facebook post promoting the state’s emergency loan fund. “We the business community aren’t looking for loans…we want the same bailout the airlines receive which is an influx of working capital to sustain us without all that extra and often excessive paperwork. We have #IMMEDIATE financial needs.”

Tell Us How the Pandemic is Impacting Your Business

The COVID-19 SPLP is supported by a growing list of partners. Help us win more support for the initiative by filling out the One Community Survey online. Visit the One Community Plan website to learn more about our work. Community partners so far include Community Development & Training Center (CDAT), the New Image News Project, Moore Eventful, and Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. To support this effort, email gypsy@powerbrokermagazine.com.

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