Thousands of Florida businesses did not get emergency loans. But some have had more than one.

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Florida distributed its first round of emergency small business funds in the state this month, making about 1,000 loans to ease the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over 38,000 applied.

Kelly Lessem, owner of Squeeze Juice Works, which has two sites in St. Petersburg, was among the vast majority whose application was not approved.

“Right now I’m spending all my energy not thinking about closing my doors,” Lessem said.

While less than 3 percent of applicants received a portion of this fund, 21 percent of the $ 49 million total went to business owners who received more than one loan, often for different business locations. a company. One received 10 loans totaling $ 500,000.

Florida Small Business Bridge Program loans are intended to temporarily ease the financial burden that businesses are facing as a result of the pandemic until more substantial funding, often from the federal government, kicks in. They are usually issued by the state after hurricanes.

This series of loans, ranging from $ 9,000 to $ 100,000, were interest-free and with a one-year repayment period. As of April 15, the most recent data available, 944 loans have been distributed.

“This was really a business and jobs economics program,” said Michael Myhre, CEO of the Small Business Development Center Network in Florida. His organization receives applications for the program and works with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to administer it.

Although the loans do not have rigid parameters for their use, Myhre said he expected them to be used to support payroll and fixed operating costs such as utilities and leases. .

Orange County received the most small business loans (93) totaling $ 5,225,500, followed by Miami-Dade County (88 loans totaling $ 3,815,000). Leon County, which has a relatively smaller population than the state’s economic center, secured $ 4,110,000 on 69 loans.

Tampa Bay accounted for 65 of the bridging loans. Hillsborough County received 32 loans ($ 1,915,000), followed by Pinellas with 23 loans ($ 1,044,000), Pasco with 6 loans ($ 395,000) and Hernando County with 4 loans ($ 175,000) .

The Tampa Bay weather could not determine the location of the 19 businesses of the loan recipients.

Homeowners who made more than one loan usually had two loans. Each business that files a separate federal income tax return may be eligible for funding, so multiple franchises may be eligible. Funding was given on a first come, first served basis instead of being based on the needs of a business, said Myhre, who added that this is how the program has historically worked.

This enabled a business owner, former National Football League linebacker Angelo Crowell, to receive 10 loans totaling $ 500,000 for various Jersey Mike’s Subs locations. Crowell could not be reached for comment.

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For owners of small businesses like Lessem, the inability to get a loan is compounded by unsuccessful attempts to get federal help under several different programs and by the inability to receive a check from the flawed unemployment system. Florida.

Senator Janet Cruz, a Democrat from Tampa, said it was “totally unfair” that some candidates get multiple loans while others get none.

She sent a letter to Governor Ron DeSantis on Monday about duplicate recipients, saying “it is unfathomable that many people could have claimed over $ 400,000 for their various businesses when an overwhelming majority of applicants receive 0 $ “.

Cruz asked DeSantis to double the state’s $ 50 million to fund more loans, and demanded that the process be changed so that no one could receive more than one until the others had reviewed their requests.

Experts say the structure of the program is inequitable and has several pitfalls. Adriana Kugler, professor of public policy and economics at Georgetown University, said that by concentrating some of the money in a few hands, the state risks losing that money if companies go bankrupt. And if a business owner has multiple locations of a business, they may have better access to other sources of funding than a small store.

“For the owner of a single establishment, this (loan) can be decisive,” she said.

Part of the problem with this tour was the volume. Hurricane Irma in 2017 broke the previous record for most emergency small business loan applications – 2,500, according to Myhre. Just under 900 were approved, for a total of $ 35 million. The state, he said, had not forecast the actual level of need.

Another problem was the method of accepting applications. Businesses could submit an application through methods such as mail, fax, and email, but an online portal set up by the state within days of the start of the application period also enabled online delivery. Requests that weren’t sent electronically had to be entered by hand, pushing a company’s place in the queue, Myhre said.

Even though she lost the loan, Lessem said she understands why the process is based primarily on the timing of the application. Assessing the 38,000 on a needs basis could delay funding by creating an even bigger bureaucratic backlog, she said.

A Squeeze Juice Works delivery truck is idle on a Wednesday afternoon in St. Petersburg.  The company was left out of the state's small business bridge loan process, even though owner Kelly Lessem applied for the funding.
A Squeeze Juice Works delivery truck is idle on a Wednesday afternoon in St. Petersburg. The company was left out of the state’s small business bridge loan process, even though owner Kelly Lessem applied for the funding. [ Boyzell Hosey ]

One thing Lessem said she learned is not to wait for government help to arrive. She uses her personal savings to buy produce and plans to start cold-pressing juice again for contactless deliveries.

“Right before that happened I was at this point where we were catching our pace, we were ready for growth and planning for expansion and now we are totally rethinking all of these directions,” she said. . “I have no doubt in my mind that we are going to come out stronger.”

Editors Connie Humburg, Steve Contorno, Allison Ross and Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.


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