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Some St. Louis Businesses Are Getting By On Small Loans, But It’s Temporary Help

Taken on 4-22-20 amid local stay at home order
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
A customer picks up a curbside order from MoKaBe's coffeehouse near Tower Grove Park. A small-business loan is helping cover the cafe's immediate financial needs, but its owner worries about the long term.

A local small-business loan program plans to distribute $2.3 million to businesses in St. Louis and St. Louis County that are struggling to stay afloat during the coronavirus outbreak.

So far, it’s funded nearly 200 zero-interest loans of $5,000 for local businesses, and hundreds are still on the waiting list.

U.S. Bank contributed $50,000 this week to the fund, which is operated by the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and the St. Louis Development Corporation. The groups launched the loan program late last month with the help of 10 area banks, which contributed a total $500,000. The St. Louis County Port Authority also committed $1 million to the fund.

Erica Henderson oversees the Small Business Resource Program. She said the money isn’t a significant amount, but it’s helping fill businesses’ immediate needs.

“Five thousand dollars does not go far, but we’re utilizing what we have and taking the opportunity to be a bridge to larger federal dollars coming into play,” she said. 

Loan recipients have 18 months to pay back the loan, with $50 monthly payments for the first six months.

Henderson said the program’s hotline has been flooded with calls from business owners seeking advice on how to apply for available funding and where to find resources like food banks. The partnership is also offering grants to business owners in distressed communities.

Many callers have asked for help getting federal assistance from the federal Small Business Administration, Henderson said.

The first wave of funds dried up quickly, but she said she’s urging business owners to prepare their documents and call their bank in anticipation of another round. Congress is expected to funnel an additional $320 billion into the federal program.

Getting by

Mo Costello has operated MoKaBe’s coffeehouse near Tower Grove Park for nearly three decades. It should be her busiest time of the year, but with curbside pickup the only option right now, business is down about $10,000 a month.

Costello recently received one of the Small Business Resource Program’s loans, and it’s helping cushion the blow. 

“It’s not a lifesaver, and it’s not a business-saver. It gets me, you know, another month,” she said. 

Costello said she’s grateful for the immediate assistance, but she’ll need more to keep the lights on. She plans to pay off utilities and employee health insurance premiums for the month, but that’s about all the loan will cover. 

Now she’s trying to figure out how she’ll pay the repair bills that are piling up. In the past few weeks, a kitchen oven, the ice machine and the air conditioning all stopped working.

She worries that without long-term government support, businesses like hers will continue to struggle even after they’re allowed to fully reopen.

“It’s bleak, let’s be honest,” she said. “Our seating capacity will be a third of what it is when it’s time to open. People are going to be really skeptical of walking into anywhere for a while.” 

Joe Jackson said he’s been applying for as many grants and loans as possible to keep his piano repair company in the Central West End afloat. He plans to dip into his $5,000 loan soon to pay for things like vehicle payments and health insurance.

Jackson received a federal SBA loan, too, but he has concerns about what he can use the money for and how much of it will end up being forgiven.

“Our resources have almost dwindled down to zero at this point. In another week, we’ll be completely cashed out,” he said. 

Jackson, who said he had to lay off all but one of his 15 employees, is working long hours to complete whatever projects he and his wife can tackle. They'll only be paid after delivering the repaired and refurbished pianos, which is difficult given local stay-at-home orders. 

He said he’s nervous about what will happen in the next few months. 

“I don’t know where we’re going to find these other revenues in four, five or six months,” Jackson said. “When we have another spike, we're just going to be back in this same boat again.”

If you’re a business owner with questions about available funding and other resources, you can call the Small Business Resource Hotline: 314-615-1777.

Follow Corinne on Twitter:@corinnesusan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.