Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Owner and esthetician Jessica West works on a brow tint at Skin and Brow Room on Gunbarrel Road on Friday. West applied for and received federal relief funding for her small business, which reopened on Wednesday after being closed for six weeks.

It wasn't always pretty, but a little more than a month after the government began dropping trillions of rescue dollars for small businesses into the country's financial systems, the logjam is starting to clear.

"Everybody's got their applications processed that were in that had their information gathered," said Colin Barrett, president of the Tennessee Bankers Association. "Those approvals have gone through regardless of size."

Banks in Tennessee wrote about $6.5 billion in loans before the money ran out less than two weeks after applications launched April 3 for the $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program. During the second round of funding for the program beginning April 27, Tennessee banks have processed loan approvals of $2.4 billion.

In all, more than $8.9 billion in aid has gone to more than 75,000 small businesses in Tennessee. Nationwide, $135 billion remains in the fund.

"I did get it," said Robin Flores, a Chattanooga attorney whose application for relief funds through FirstBank was left in limbo when the money ran out during the first round. "They came through, and I was very grateful."

Flores was able to use the money to bring back an employee he had laid off in March, though she is still trying to sort out her unemployment benefits, Flores said.

"She had applied for unemployment back when I laid her off in March, and she still hasn't seen the first dime," he said. "She's still entitled to it."

The average size of the loans in the second round was smaller than in the first, Barrett said. At the end of the first round of funding, the average loan size to Tennessee businesses was $191,000, he said. During the second round, it has been around $59,000.

"The loan amount has become a lot smaller, and that's because, unless you are a larger small business, it takes a while to get that documentation together for the banks to process to the [Small Business Administration]," he said. "As each day goes by, that dollar amount will continue to drop."

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Small business relief through the Paycheck Protection Program

As of Wednesday, more than $8.9 billion in aid had gone to more than 75,000 small businesses in Tennessee.

Nationwide, $135 billion remains in the fund.

Bank of America: $24.9 billion in loan approvals for 265,500 small businesses

Truist: $10 billion

Regions Bank: $2.8 billion

Pinnacle: $2.4 billion to nearly 14,000 small businesses

First Horizon: $2.1 billion to more than 13,000 small businesses



The experience of applying for and receiving the Paycheck Protection Program money varied dramatically as banks scrambled to process unprecedented numbers of applications for the forgivable federal loans.

George Wilson, CEO and co-founder of Southern Payroll and Benefits, said his clients consistently had better luck with smaller banks where they had strong relationships with local bankers.

"They absolutely were quicker and easier to work with," Wilson said.

One of Wilson's clients, Randy Connelly, the owner of Valkyrie Axe Throwing, waited weeks for his loan through Bank of America. When the money arrived this week, he received only about $2,000 of the $14,000 he expected. Connelly talked with the local banker he normally deals with, but learned he'd have to work through the corporate system.

"The local guy said he doesn't have any control over this — he explained to me he's essentially a teller," Connelly said. "I have yet to get a person on the phone."

Bank of America has set up a specific email address for customers who have questions about their Paycheck Protection Program loan status, spokesman William Halldin said in an email.

"We have secured [Small Business Administration] approval for about 2,300 Tennessee businesses worth about $200 million in loans," Halldin said. "We are continuing to process other applications and receiving new ones, as well."

The bank also announced last week that it has provided $24.9 billion in loan approvals for 265,500 small businesses nationwide.

"We are happy to see the [Small Business Administration] has been processing submissions at a faster rate, and hopefully there is sufficient funding for everyone in need," Dean Athanasia, head of Consumer and Small Business at Bank of America, said in a written statement.

Tai Federico, a veterinarian and owner of Riverview Animal Hospital, said he struggled for weeks to make progress through Regions Bank, then switched to local lender Millennium Bank and had results in days.

"They hit a home run for us," he said.

Federico's application for relief stalled when the funding ran out during the first round, but now he has the money to ensure he can pay his staff despite a dropoff in business, he said.

"It's so nice having that cushion," he said. "We were down tens of thousand of dollars. Now we're good for six months."

Regions Bank has processed $2.8 billion in loans to clients through April 15, said Evelyn Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Regions Bank.

"We understand how important these loans are to small businesses and have substantially increased staffing dedicated to processing applications and automated as much of the process as possible," she said by email.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Owner and esthetician Jessica West poses at Skin and Brow Room on Gunbarrel Road on Friday. West applied for and received federal relief funding for her small business, which reopened on Wednesday after being closed for six weeks.

Jessica West, co-owner of the Skin and Brow Room, also tried to work through Regions Bank, but never received any communication from it other than automated emails, she said. She said she waited weeks, and then the money ran out, so she went to First Volunteer for help.

"First Volunteer in two days got everything processed and got the funding," West said. "I just got funded on Monday."

Lynn Chesnutt, director of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, said there isn't any consistent evidence that smaller banks were better at handling the unprecedented demands of distributing the Paycheck Protection Program aid. Every system was stretched by the task, but using banks to distribute the funds was the best approach, he said.

"The process as a whole has been a great success," Chesnutt said. "Though there may have been some initial hiccups, once it got in place, you've got thousands of institutions out there that spread these applications out a lot versus one government entity."

Craig Holley, chairman of Pinnacle Bank in Chattanooga, said the scope of the challenge was beyond anything he has seen in 40 years of banking.

"We're going to land at about $200 million in the Chattanooga area community," he said. "That volume we did in four to five weeks matches what we normally do in a year's time."

In Tennessee, Pinnacle has loaned $1.39 billion to 7,758 businesses, with $188.6 million in loans going to 1,009 businesses in the Chattanooga area.

The Small Business Administration, Holley added, processed as many applications in the first round of funding as it normally processes in a decade.

"I've never experienced anything like this," Holley said.

The Small Business Administration did take some measures to adjust processes for banks of different sizes, Barrett said. The agency carved out eight hours on Wednesday exclusively for banks with less than $1 billion in assets to submit applications for the loans, Barrett said.

"On Thursday, they start doing the batched files from banks that could submit 5,000 at once to make sure to get the largest banks through," he said. "Community banks definitely stepped up, but banks of all sizes — no one, not community banks or large banks — has ever seen volume like what we have seen."

Contact Mary Fortune at or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter @maryfortune.