Federal fund for struggling restaurants depleted; Music venues waiting months for relief

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- After Congress approved two key coronavirus relief programs for small businesses, some owners are experiencing long wait times for grants. Others fear they will be left empty-handed without additional funding. 

On Monday, the Small Business Administration’s top official made several stops in Central Virginia as part of a nationwide listening tour. In a one-on-one interview with 8News, U.S. SBA Administrator Isabel Casillas Guzman said these programs are already having a transformational impact but challenges remain.

Not enough money for restaurants 

Early on, Guzman said the SBA knew there wouldn’t be enough money to cover all of the businesses applying for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF).

Guzman said they received over $72 billion in requests, far short of the $28.6 billion allocated by Congress.

Things got messier when the SBA initially attempted to prioritize applications for businesses owned by women and minorities after some argued they were overlooked during earlier rounds of funding.

The SBA was later sued by white business owners who argued prioritizing these communities was discriminatory. 

According to Guzman, the SBA was court ordered to stop funding applicants based on priority groups and shift non-priority applicants to the front of the line. As a result, she said about 3,000 businesses were unable to get the awards they were in the process of receiving.

Meika Davis was among those caught in the crossfire. 

Davis was hoping to use a $17,000 grant to transform Lady M Soul2Soul, a catering company in Newport News, into a food truck. After months of cancelled events, she thought going mobile would help her business and the community. 

“I used to be homeless so we wanted to give back and serve communities as well,” Davis said. “This has put a halt in our plans.” 

After initially receiving a notice of approval, Davis said her payment was rejected by her bank. When she tried to correct her payment information, she said she was informed that the fund was already depleted. Ever since, Davis claims she has been getting mixed messages from the SBA about what she should do next. 

“I want to fight for the people who are still waiting for millions of dollars that we were told was ours and then they took it away,” Davis said. “These are hard workers out here that want to get their business back on the road. You made a promise. Keep your promise and do something about this situation.” 

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger said she supports a proposal in Congress to provide more RRF funding. She said there is no timeline for when that money might be approved, if at all. 

“If additional funding is allocated by Congress, the SBA stands ready to reopen that program and process those applications that are in the queue and provide the customer service to help those applicants,” Guzman said. 

“Overall, we know our businesses still need relief. It’s still a disaster in terms of their ability to reopen fully and get the revenues they are used to getting,” Guzman continued.

So far, SBA data shows 2,729 individual awards have been granted to Virginia businesses, totaling more than $653 million in RRF dollars.

Long waits for entertainment venues 

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) was signed into law by former President Donald Trump in December 2020 to provide direct relief for performance venues, museums, movie theaters, and other entertainment spaces.

The SBA opened its application portal in April but technical issues early on slowed down the roll out, according to Guzman.

Kevin Liu, co-owner of The Tin Pan music venue in Henrico, said they received their money in June.

“It was certainly slower than I had expected. It was definitely frustrating to some degree, ” Liu said. 

The Tin Pan is one of 160 businesses that were awarded more than $97 million in SVOG funding in Virginia, according to SBA data. 

Liu said, after 15 months of closure, it allowed them to reopen without having to take out loans. 

“If we had not gotten some sort of help then we would’ve had to go into the hole in order to get reopened,” Liu said.

Guzman said the SBA received over 15,000 SVOG applications nationwide and the agency has processed almost 10,000 so far. It’s not clear how many businesses waiting in the queue are operating in Virginia. 

“We should be, by mid-August, completely wrapped up with the program. We do anticipate that everybody eligible should be able to receive funds,” Guzman said. 

Asked why the implementation of this program took so long, Guzman said, “The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant was not where I wanted it to be when I first joined the SBA. We looked at transforming the program, the process, as well as implementing technology fixes so that we could get those funds out more quickly…We’re feeling good about the process now.” 

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