For small business owners scrambling to survive the coronavirus pandemic, untangling their options for federal and local loans and grants has become their new side gig.
"A loan for a small business takes considerable time and thought," said Kaleena Goldsworthy, who had just officially launched her business when the crisis hit. "A loan isn't something you just decide to apply for. I need to make an educated decision on how to proceed with this."
In addition to a massive $2.2 trillion federal aid package passed Friday that offers an array of financial relief to business owners, the city of Chattanooga announced Monday that $2.5 million previously set aside for economic development will be used for loans and grants to small businesses.
"We're trying to throw a lifeline to our small business community to give them a fighting chance to survive over the next few weeks and couple of months," said Jermaine Freeman, the city's economic development officer.
The city has heard from more than 80 businesses looking for help, he said. "The need is coming from all over the place — it's recreation, it's restaurants, it's hair salons, it's personal grooming, we've got a request from an engineering firm, it's entertainment. There's a lot of need."
Goldsworthy's business, the Bitter Bottle, was built almost entirely on selling her alcohol-based bitters to restaurants and bars, which have been among the hardest-hit establishments as social distancing restrictions have taken hold to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
"A lot of my close friends and the people that were supporting me are completely out of work right now or completely shut down," Goldsworthy said. "We had just gotten a placement in Chicago, but they also shut down."
For information about aid from the city of Chattanooga, visit connect.chattanooga.gov/covid-small-business-stabilization-fund/
For information from the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, visit www.tsbdc.org/
To learn more about Small Business Adminstration aid, visit www.sba.gov/
For local business resources, visit ChattanoogaChamber.com
"It's rent, it's payroll, of course they've put a stay on utility shut-offs, but we're still trying to pay those," St. Clair said. "Our foremost concern is paying our employees. We don't take a paycheck — we just pay our bills."
St. Clair has been tracking the aid available, applying for federal aid from the Small Business Administration as well as a grant she read about from the James Beard Foundation.
"I'm going to go after anything I see," she said. "As a small business owner, you have to stay on top of things like that right now."
Lynn Chesnutt, director of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, said he and his team are fielding calls from across the region. His team of four serves more than 500 clients in nine counties, and it is inundated with information and requests for help, he said.
"We're sending out to them things to say, 'Hey, here's the latest information we have, here's what you need to be doing as you work through this," he said. "It's not just which you should apply for, it's what, how much. We're urging our businesses to do strategy with their teams and get a handle on what they'll need for the next three, six, nine months."
At Wind River Tiny Homes in Apison, the owners are hanging back a bit to make sure they understand the landscape before they seek aid, said Paul Beckmann, who is a CPA and controller for the eight-person company.
"We are aware there are expanded unemployment benefits from the federal government, expanded medical leave, and it looks like there are also subsidized loans," he said. "However, we are still just learning about all of that, and we're going to wait a little bit. It has almost created a feeding frenzy, a bottleneck, and everyone is getting so bombarded with questions right now."
Wind River is still doing business, though a couple of employees have chosen to quarantine and a couple of customers have canceled their orders, Beckmann said.
"We only have like 15 customers a year, so that's a big deal," he said. "From what I've read about some of the loans, we are eligible because we have been affected, and we will be affected down the road because the economy as a whole is affected."
Jessica West and business partner Ashton Newman shut down their three locations of the Skin and Brow Room in mid-March, laying off seven employees and four contractors. West has been seeking help from financial experts in how to handle unemployment for these workers, and what aid makes sense to pursue, but it's a confusing process, she said.
"It's been kind of figure it out as you go as far as what's available to them for unemployment," she said. "Now they're talking about forgivable loans, but I'm hesitant to take out loans — there are a lot of unknowns with that."
She has already been in touch with the city about financial aid, but there are several types of relief available, and it's not clear what will make the most sense for her business, West said.
"I would love some user-friendly directions on that," she said. "If I get these loans and pay these employees, but I don't pay myself because I am kind of one with business, how do I file for that? I haven't cut myself a paycheck, so I don't know if I even qualify for unemployment."
While they wrestle with these questions, West and Newman are shipping some products directly to clients, but their revenue is down 95%, West said.
"We haven't been able to provide services, and that is the vast majority of our revenue," she said.
Contact Mary Fortune at email@example.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.