Leon CARES is a big financial aid for small businesses

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

Even before Leon County government opened its portal for small businesses to apply three weeks ago for a financial grant, statistics were pointing to how the coronavirus pandemic was affecting the economy.

A survey done by the Office of Economic Vitality in June showed how badly women and minority-owned businesses were hit in particular. Fifty-three percent of that demographic experienced a 50 percent or greater decline in revenue since March.

Cristina Paredes, director, Leon County Office of Economic Vitality, suspected that businesses owned by Latinos were hit just as hard.

 Those and any other small business that have had a 25 percent loss in revenue because of the pandemic could apply for financial aid from $7.5 million that is earmarked through Leon CARES.

“We hope that through this Leon CARES program we can provide that little extra lift that people need to pay their bills,” Paredes said. “We are hoping that this grant can help continue the operation of our small businesses by paying a rent bill, a utility bill or for promotional purposes to let people know that you are in fact opened for business.”

Several small businesses, especially restaurants, were forced by the pandemic outbreak to close this past spring.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

Each business can apply for as much as $8,500 in aid. Additionally, certified women-owned business could apply through OEV for a grant that could range from $1,500 to $3,000.

As of last Friday, 1,927 businesses had submitted applications to Leon CARES requesting a total of $2,420,000.  The average request is $3,067, said Mathieu Cavell, Assistant to the County Administrator for Community Relations and Resilience.

The small business funding is part of $52.2 million that the county received through a $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act that Congressional passed in March to drive economic recovery from the pandemic.

Erika Rojas

The county is also offering funding for public health, individual assistance, local human services assistance, food insecurity/homelessness and childcare support. To apply go to www.LeonCountyCARES.com.

Like the rest of the country, several local small businesses began to feel the pinch when the pandemic caused a statewide shutdown. Several of them have  been trying to bounce back since a stay-at-home order has been relaxed.

Since the county opened a portal for applications in mid-August, concern about total inclusion got the attention of Katrina Tuggerson, president of the Capital City Chamber of Commerce. At the same time, Erika Rojas reached out to Tuggerson for inclusion of the Hispanic business community.

Cristina Paredes

With help from Elizabeth Ricci, an immigration attorney and a member of the Capital Chamber, the Leon CARES promotion information was written in Spanish.

Having the information in Spanish will include a population that is divided by the language barrier, Rojas said.

“Even though they have employees and they have a business, it’s kind of confusing for them because they don’t speak English,” said Rojas, a food truck owner who also works as a personal chef.

She has contacted 35 business owners through her outreach, Rojas said, but fewer than 10 showed interest in applying.  In part, she said, the low participation is because Latino business owners don’t often get financial support without having to pay it back.

Many are often too involved in their business and are concerned about meeting qualifying criteria.

“It’s hard. It’s real hard,” Rojas said. “Latino; we have business and we run the business. We are the employees of our businesses.”

Another area of concern, Tuggerson said, is how many of the small businesses are set up.

“The bookkeeping fee and the legal fees; they add up,” Tuggerson said. “It never goes that way (but) they just go from one project to the next without fully understanding the bookkeeping side or the administrative side of their businesses.”

To help educate small business owner, who often get started on savings and ambition, the Big Bend Chamber of Commerce, Greater Tallahassee Chamber and Capital City Chamber have teamed up to give business owners technical support.

The support that the chambers offer could make a difference in the outcome for a small business aid applicant, Tuggerson said.

“Having your paperwork and documents lined up is real,” she said.