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Economy / Business

Helping Florida's Small Businesses Survive The Pandemic

Slide on Hillsborough County's R3 grant to help small business owner
Hillsborough County
This is a slide on Hillsborough County's R3 grant to help small business owners.

COVID-19 has been devasting for small businesses.

Eileen Rodriguez is Regional Director of the Florida Small Business Development Center at the Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida. She said the coronavirus pandemic has hurt nearly every enterprise. 

"We work with a lot of small businesses throughout Tampa Bay, and what we're seeing is that virtually all of them have been affected negatively by COVID. A lot of them have seen a distinct decrease in their cash flow and their profitability. And their ability to connect with vendors," she said.

She said small business owners aren't just giving up in the face of how 2020 has already gone. 

"I got to tell you most most of the small business owners we've been talking to are fighters. They they are looking for any which way possible to keep their businesses going. You know, for people who own small businesses. It's almost like a child you know, it's like it's their baby. These businesses are like their children," Rodriguez said.

The Florida SBDC serves Hernando, Highlands, Hardee, DeSoto, Polk, Pasco, Pinellas, Sarasota, Manatee and Hillsborough Counties. Rodriguez said it is helping small business owners find financial help, in the form of loans and grants offered through the federal CARES Act money and distributed by local communities.

"And so we've been working with those counties as well to make sure that, you know, small business owners are aware that these grants are available and hopefully they're, they can meet all the requirements in order to get that money. So financing is a big, big deal," Rodriguez said.

Hillsborough County alone is home to some 27,000 small businesses, which employ around 80 percent of the working people in the community, said Lindsey Kimball, director of economic development for the county.

The county's "Rapid Response Recovery" or R3 program has $100 million dollars in relief to distribute to small business owners. All of it is grant money, so it won't have to be repaid. And Kimball said the grant application is not arduous process and uses an online portal.

"It's really down to about four documents that they need to, of course, proving identity, information on the business... things that most business owners have at the tip of their fingers. You know, their W-9 forms, your driver's license… things like that. We’ve tried to keep it as quick and easy as possible, as painless as possible for them, because we know that this is a very, it's a very hard time,” Kimball said.

"One of the grants provides between $7,500 and $10,000 to business owners, depending on the company's size.  And the grant can be used for for working capital, for payroll expenses, for paying back rent, whatever it is that they need to help get themselves back on track," Kimball said.

The program is first-come, first-served, and there is already about $15 million applicants already have been awarded in just two weeks.  Kimball said they take the "rapid" part of this relief program seriously, paying grants within eight days. 

"So we're trying to keep that running as quickly as possible. And really everybody at the county, not just it's not just the economics department, it's, you know, our budget office or finance office, our clerk, all know that this is important to everybody's really pushing and growing in the right direction to get this paid as quickly as possible," she said.

The Hillsborough R3 program also has reimbursement grants for small businesses that make new hires and for companies which have had to retrofit their businesses to suit the "new normal" under coronavirus. These grants are meant for businesses which have reopened in some fashion. During Phase 2 of the program, business can qualify for funding from one of three different programs:

  • Kickstart Small Business - up to $10,000 in working capital, for businesses with up to $1 million in annual revenue
  • Back to Work - up to $2,000 per employee in payroll incentives to hire or rehire workers, for businesses with up to $5 million in annual revenue
  • Safe at Work - up to $10,000 matching reimbursement for the cost of qualifying workplace improvements directly related to mitigating the spread of COVID-19, for businesses with up to $5 million in annual revenue

More details on the R3 program are available here.