Pinellas cities hope cash is the right prescription for suffering businesses

A patron waits outside the Ace Hardware store on Seminole Boulevard in Largo on April 13. In order to adhere to social distancing guidelines, only two customers were allowed in the store at one time. Largo is among the cities in Pinellas County establishing grants programs for small businesses in need.

Billions of dollars of federal aid is on the way to small businesses across the country. Getting it into the hands of their owners will take precious time, though.

Until it arrives, some city leaders in Pinellas County have no intention of sitting idly by while the lifeblood of their communities — small businesses and their employees — suffer.

According to a survey conducted by Tampa Bay Partnership on April 1-2, one in four working residents in the Tampa Bay area has been laid off or furloughed since the coronavirus pandemic began in March, and they say they can only support their households for 19 days.

The survey of Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, and Hernando county residents, which was conducted by the privately funded regional advocacy organization, is all the more reason officials are taking action by convening task forces and instituting grant programs in an effort to provide immediate relief.

Here’s a look at how some communities are getting involved.

Tarpon Springs

With its tourism-based economy foundering, city officials weren’t content to let local merchants wait for outside help. Therefore, city commissioners approved a Small Business Endurance Grant on April 7 that will provide a $1,000 one-time payment to support small businesses experiencing hardships related to COVID-19.

According to the grant requirements, the business in question must be public facing (i.e. retail restaurant, bar, salon, etc.), located in the city limits, have fewer than 50 employees and must be in need of working capital to continue operations.

Those not eligible for the grant include national chains, franchises, nonprofits and in-home or virtual businesses.

The resolution also states the funds must be used for things like working capital, payroll, debt payments, and rent, lease or mortgage payments, and not for personal uses or uses prohibited by federal, state or local laws.

“I think this is a great opportunity to help our local businesses that are struggling economically,” Mayor Chris Alahouzos said. “I’ve received many phone calls from local business owners who have expressed concern, and they’re looking for our help.”

The $100,000 in funding to back the grant would come from the city’s emergency reserve fund, a decision supported by the mayor and the other four commissioners, including Connor Donovan who came up with the idea.

“Our job as city leaders isn’t to sit back saying, ‘When is big government gonna take care of us?’ We need to take care of ourselves,” he said.

Read more about the program here.

Clearwater

New Mayor Frank Hibbard said the city needs to begin thinking about both immediate and long-term relief. 

Therefore, he said the city has been working with Amplify Clearwater, the city’s chamber of commerce, on setting up a task force comprised of local business leaders who can lay the groundwork for the recovery process.  

“I want to be ahead of this,” he said. “I also want to give people hope. We are going to come out of this. We’re going to make it through this and when we do get on the other side, I want to be prepared.”

Amanda Payne, president and CEO of Amplify, said the group will include members from a variety of industries who know the area and have broad-based experience at the city, county and state levels.

Some of those members include herself; Amplify chairman Scott Goyer, president and CEO of YMCA of the Suncoast; Denise Sanderson, economic development director for the city; Frank Dame, CEO of Clearwater Marine Aquarium; restaurateur Frank Chivas; attorney Brian Aungst Jr.; and others.

“What we were looking for are people who are investors in the city, in the county and are job creators. Because we felt like if we restore our employers, that, in turn, restores our employees,” she said.

The short-term goal, Payne said, is to be a resource of information to help business owners sift through the vast amounts of information and pinpoint what’s relevant to them.

Florida’s $1 trillion economy is one of the largest in the world, so the group that met for the first time April 9 also will be looking down a road that, for the time being, is shrouded in uncertainty.

“How do we return to that?” she said. “And how do we return to that quickly? Do we look at different funding programs for small business from the city and from the county? Do we look to the state?”

Options on the table, she said, could also include small business grant programs or possible tax deferrals or abatements.

“All of this, obviously, is going to have a price tag associated with it, so we have to understand the impact to the city or county or state or whatever that may be and make sure the return on investment is significant enough to justify that request or that opportunity,” she said.

She hopes the task force can come up with five to 10 suggestions in the next month or so that they can work toward.

Largo

City commissioners agreed to move forward April 14 with a grant program that could provide as many as 358 small businesses with a one-time payment of at least $1,000.

City staff had initially proposed a program that would provide two months of commercial rent or mortgage assistance in an amount not to exceed $5,000, but Mayor Woody Brown urged commissioners and staff to simplify the process for the sake of expediency.

“What we’re trying to do is help keep them afloat and $1,000 goes a long way for small businesses, believe me,” said Brown, owner of Main Street Chiropractic. “I think if we can do something like that to every single business that we have in the city that is 50 (employees) or less, it would do a lot for these businesses. And it would be easy. Finding the money part might not be easy.”

Staff said the 358 businesses were identified because they were classified as a restaurant, bar, or nonessential business, have a brick-and-mortar location, a Largo Business Tax Receipt, and between two and 50 employees.

Read more about the program here.

Madeira Beach

With the beaches closed, the pandemic has robbed this city of its most valuable asset: tourism. But that doesn’t mean the rent isn’t due for many of those businesses.

New Mayor John Hendricks knows that and said it’s time for the city to both help and set an example by providing relief to small businesses.

“There are a lot of rental properties in Madeira Beach for our residents and a lot of those people are in the service industry and a lot of them are out of work right now,” he said March 31 during a City Commission meeting. “And I’d like to see the city be a leader in giving the renters some relief, and I hope other landlords in Madeira Beach will do the same for their tenants.”

His peers agreed and voted to waive the next month’s rent to the three businesses that lease their properties from the city — Fantasy Planet, Snack Shack, and Saltwater Destination, a beach chair concession company.

Read more about the program here.

St. Petersburg

The city of St. Petersburg has created the Fighting Chance Fund — an emergency grant for locally owned and independently operated small businesses.

According to the city’s website, the fund aims to provide support to about 1,000 restaurant, bar, retail, and service-based businesses and their more than 3,000 eligible employees.

This program provides $5,000 grants to eligible businesses and $500 to impacted eligible individuals.

In order to be eligible, businesses must be at least 50% locally owned by residents of St. Pete, in the city limits, have 25 employees or fewer, and must affirm a loss of revenue due to COVID-19.