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Time running out for small-business relief grants

Jaclyn Behringer, general manager at the Santa Fe Climbing Center, sits at the front desk of the empty climbing gym. The business received a grant through the city from the CARES Act. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Almost immediately, the COVID-19 pandemic began wreaking havoc on local businesses in Santa Fe, due in part to state-mandated restrictions or more residents choosing to stay at home for their own safety.

Hundreds lost their jobs and 88 businesses in Santa Fe shut their doors for good in the first five months of the pandemic.

And despite the economic packages made available to small businesses, local governments have spent only a tiny portion of economic relief money so far, leaving them less than six weeks to spend the rest.

Now – as cases and shutdowns skyrocket statewide – local businesses have the chance to stop some of the financial bleeding, even if only temporarily.

In September, the city of Santa Fe, Santa Fe County and town of Edgewood were jointly awarded $3.6 million of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding by the state to distribute as grants to struggling local businesses. Dozens have applied so far.

Through the program, titled Small Business and Nonprofit Stabilization Program businesses within Santa Fe County can now apply for a maximum of $15,000 in relief grants. Many already have.

Alex Fitzgerald, an economic development specialist for the county, said the city and county have systems in place to prioritize which businesses receive grants should applications exceed current funding.

However, he also said officials are not really concerned about that happening. In fact, there’s greater concern that not all of the $3.6 million will be spent in time.

Similar to other CARES Act funds received by local governments, the small-business grants are subject to a Dec. 30 deadline, after which no more can be distributed. Fitzgerald said they’ve distributed $400,000 to 26 businesses in the area thus far. Most received the full $15,000 as part of that grant.

With less than six weeks remaining and only 11% of the funds allocated to businesses, it’s unknown how much will go left unspent by the end of the year.

“We’re in the middle of it right now,” Fitzgerald said, adding they still have another 60 applications to sort through.

Fitzgerald and Liz Camacho, who works for the city’s Office of Economic Development, said the primary difficulty has been making more businesses aware of the grants and that not enough have been applying.

“It’s very much a real concern for us,” Fitzgerald said of not meeting the deadline.

With the state recently adding more restrictions and shutdowns on certain businesses, there’s a belief that more money will be allocated in the coming weeks, he said.

The grants are not available to every business that applies. They must have fewer than 50 employees, an annual revenue less than $2 million and a year-to-year revenue loss of at least 25%.

All those requirements demand extensive amounts of paperwork and records in each application, a not insignificant task for many.

Kim Brown, president of local nonprofit Girl’s Inc. of Santa Fe, is no stranger to applying for grants, which often requires a lot of work.

“I don’t think any grant process is typically user-friendly,” she said. “That was definitely complicated, but not unusually complicated.”

In order to ease the application process, officials have started hosting twice-a-week webinars – one in English, the other in Spanish – to answer questions from small-business owners.

Girl’s Inc. of Santa Fe, which provides mentoring and educational opportunities for young girls in the area, has seen its revenue decline by $100,000 since the start of the pandemic, as events such as summer camp had to be postponed.

Brown said the $15,000 in CARES Act funding they received, while not a long-term solution, will mostly go toward retaining staff members.

“It’s a kind of drop in the bucket … but I am glad it’s going to small businesses,” she said.

Even a relatively small amount of $15,000 can go a long way in helping a business.

Andre Wiltenberg, owner of the Santa Fe Climbing Center, poses in his empty climbing gym. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Andre Wiltenburg, owner of Santa Fe Climbing Center, said his business received the full $15,000 they applied for and will use it on his employees’ salaries.

“This money is basically already spent,” he said in a deadpan chuckle.

Like many businesses, Wiltenburg’s had to shut down completely during the governor’s most recent stay-at-home order. He said membership dues and virtual classes have helped during the pandemic, but that not having anyone in the climbing gym does hurt revenues.

Bottles of sanitizer are spread around the Santa Fe Climbing Center. While it was open, climbers had to disinfect their hands and shoes before using the wall. The climbing gym is currently closed to the public. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“All the loans have been spent … but we’re still struggling,” he said, adding he’s hoping more loans or grants will be allotted to small businesses.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced plans for a special legislative session to take place this week, during which legislators are expected to provide some sort of financial relief for businesses struggling across the state.