Small businesses’ injuries hard to treat

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Manitou Springs small-business owner Safron Neusaenger took a call this week from a vendor who said her debit card only covered half of what she owed.

The money, Neusaenger said, just isn’t there.

Neusaenger bootstrapped her clothing store business, Safron of Manitou, and was proud that she never operated on credit. Then came the Waldo Canyon fire. All the clothing orders for this summer’s sales are still on the racks.

“I’m down a quarter of what I did the year before,” she said. “I definitely need help.”

Neusaenger isn’t sure if her business will survive. For the first time in eight years of business, she’s waiting on approval for an SBA loan.

“I started this business completely off my back,” she said. “I’ve never had to do anything like this … I really feel like it would be so great to get that little bit of help.”

Pikes Peak region business leaders, lending firms, nonprofit agencies and service club members are stretching out their collective arms to help small businesses like Safron of Manitou, stay open. They say they are not willing to let small businesses go under because of the fire. They estimate that of 7,500 businesses evacuated during the fire, 10 to 15 percent (between 750 and 1,000) are treading water.

For the past two months the Pikes Peak Region Business Recovery Team, organized by the Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC, has been trying to get its arms around the issue of post-fire business recovery.

The team has set up short-term financial lending programs to help small businesses pay the bills, and some of the city’s banking CEOs are sitting down with small-business owners for heart-to-heart counseling sessions.

They set up free marketing programs to help small businesses with their social media presence. And they’ve called to check in on 1,400 small-business owners in the region and, in some cases, listen when they cry.

“These are our neighbors, and they are trying to keep their businesses open,” said Tammy Fields, the Chamber/EDC vice president of business attraction.

Here is how plans are unfolding:

The Colorado Enterprise Fund and Accion, two Colorado Springs nonprofit lending firms, will award short-term, 12-month payment deferral loans to qualified small businesses injured by the fire.

The Pikes Peak Business Recovery Fund has been set up through the Pikes Peak Community Foundation to accept donations to offset the small-business loan application fees and interest rates.

The U.S. Small Business Administration continues to accept applications for low-interest-rate loans to small businesses through its disaster relief program.

The Small Business Development Center is offering free business counseling, free marketing expertise and door-to-door visits to small businesses hurt by the fire.

Members of Pikes Peak Area Rotary Clubs are making surprised visits to some small businesses affected by the fire with checks for $2,000.

This quest to save small businesses has led to questions about how much a community owes its small businesses following a disaster. There is no national model, no program in place that allows people to make charitable donations to help for-profit businesses stay afloat. And the question becomes, should there be?

These are not easy discussions, said Roger Miller, COO of iManitou, the consolidated Chamber of Commerce, Visitor Bureau and Office of Economic Development.

“What really hit us on the recovery team is that there is no mechanism for people to funnel money into businesses,” Miller said.

He hopes the painful discussions of the past two months will lead to a permanent local disaster relief program for small businesses.

The hurt and the dilemma

After the Waldo Canyon fire was extinguished, the community looked around and found its small businesses still standing. There were no visible signs of trauma.

Yet everyone knew small businesses were suffering, Fields said. It wasn’t physical injury, but it was economic injury, something you can’t see when you drive by a business.

The business recovery team found that economic injury to a small business is difficult to treat. Other cities that suffered disaster had a different injury — their businesses were burned to the ground or swept away in floods. They qualified for federal assistance.

But there was no assistance for Pikes Peak region businesses, Miller said. And as the days of few or no shoppers turned into months, he grew more frustrated. Manitou Springs, a town that relies heavily on summer tourism, has had 44 layoffs since the fire and stores that were opened just a few months ago are now shuttered.

“If we lose businesses we lose jobs,” Miller said. “The ripple effect to the economy is going to be huge.”

A survey of 300 area small businesses reveals that they need stopgap money to get them through the end of this business cycle. Some said they could get by with $500; others estimated they needed $50,000 to keep the doors open.

Pikes Peak Area Rotary Clubs heard the pleas. They rallied to raise money through their foundation and surprised two small businesses this month with checks for $2,000. The group has similar plans for at least eight other small businesses in El Paso and Teller counties in the next few weeks. It’s money the group hopes will help small businesses keep the lights on, said Rosanne Gain, a member of the North Colorado Springs Rotary Club.

“We just wanted to say, ‘We believe in you,’ “ she said.

More than 50 small businesses have applied for SBA low-interest disaster relief loans. There could be more as business owners affected by the fire calculate the true hit their business took this summer, said Roger Busch, Small Business Administration public information officer.

“We just know businesses will take a little bit longer,” Busch said. “A lot are trying to justify their economic injury — they are still putting those figures together.”

SBA is offering loans to business owners for up $2 million for economic injury. Federal disaster loans are fixed at 4 percent interest rate and could be repaid over 30 years.

But most small businesses owners cannot fathom taking on a loan payment right now, said Aikta Marcoulier, Colorado Springs Small Business Development Center director.

“A lot of small businesses are trying to figure out how to keep the doors open,” she said. “They really need grant money.”

Some relief available

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have poured into nonprofit agencies to help the victims of the fire, the firefighters and to replenish nonprofits’ coffers for the work they did with fire relief. No one begrudges that, Miller said. But, in the meantime, small business owners are deciding whether to pay employees or pay their taxes.

Systems just aren’t set up to help for-profit businesses, said Eric Cefus, Pikes Peak Community Foundation director of new business development. The foundation was asked early on if it could set up a fund that would support small businesses. It can’t, he said. All money collected through the foundation must be distributed to nonprofits.

Additionally, Cefus had serious questions about who would decide which businesses would get the financial help.

“I kept asking the question, was the business in good standing one week before the fire?” Cefus said. “Are they doing poorly now because of the fire or because of other reasons?”

The Colorado Enterprise Fund and Accion, nonprofit lending agencies that specialize in micro-lending, have offered up a $250,000 fund to provide a 12-month loan deferral plan and no loan fees to small businesses. Businesses still have to qualify for the loans.

Now, Pikes Peak Community Foundation can accept donations that will be distributed to the two nonprofit lenders to help cover loan application fees and interest on the loans. The business recovery team is reaching out to coporate businesses to help cover those expenses.

“We are hoping people understand the business aspect of it,” Fields said. “This is an effort to keep businesses open.”

The region’s small-business ecosystem is fragile, though it shouldn’t be, said Ingrid Wood, recently hired at the SBDC for business outreach. Herself a small-business owner, Wood created the database of 7,500 small businesses in the fire-evacuated areas. It’s been her voice behind many of the calls to small businesses.

Business owners initially thought they could survive the summer, Wood said. But now the financial picture is becoming clearer and some are saying they will close for winter, though they’ve been year-round businesses.

“They’ve built a business for 30 years and may have to close,” Wood said. “One lady asked, ‘Do you think someone can buy us out?’ and then she started crying.”

SBDC counselors are available to talk and listen, Marcoulier said. More importantly, they are there to help go over the books and figure out the next move.

“It’s amazing how emotional it was for businesses, even those not in the fire evacuation area,” Marcoulier said. “Bottom line, I want people to know if they don’t know where to go, start with us. Our ultimate goal is trying to keep their doors open.”

Colorado Springs Small Business Development Center

Disaster Recovery Outreach Program includes social media marketing help; financial counseling; loan application help; partnership with Cumulus Radio for discounted advertising packages; financial experts will visit your business.

Contact: www.cssbdc.org or 255-3844

Pikes Peak Area Rotary Endowment

Accepting donations for small businesses hurt by the Waldo Canyon fire. All businesses that receive funds are vetted by volunteers of SCORE, a nonprofit business mentoring program.

Contact: rotary-coloradospringsarea.org

Pikes Peak Region Business Recovery Fund

Accepting donations, through the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, to help offset small business loan application fees and interest rates for businesses hurt by the Waldo Canyon fire.

Contact: ppcf.org/products/pikes-peak-region-business-recovery-fund

2 Responses to Small businesses’ injuries hard to treat

  1. Thanks Monica for following up on this effort by many organizations to address the needs of small, local businesses affected by the fire. Also, the 8 Rotary Clubs in the Pikes Peak region appreciate being included in your article. Anyone wanting to know more about the Pikes Peak Area Rotary Endowment and what we are doing, please contact me.

    Rosanne Gain
    September 14, 2012 at 9:56 am

  2. The power of Rotary is impacting our area faster and with less strings than others – lets get behind them and help them do the job. Private sector helping others!

    Scott Allen
    September 14, 2012 at 4:11 pm