by Chetanya Robinson
East African grocery stores, immigrant-owned restaurants, florists, dry cleaners, and daycares — these are some of the small businesses across South Seattle that, in the last few weeks, received $10,000 from the City’s Small Business Stabilization Fund intended to mitigate the effects of coronavirus.
By the South Seattle Emerald’s count, 64 of the 250 businesses awarded funding city-wide are located in the South End. They range from neighborhood coffee shops like The Station and Resistencia Coffee to celebrated culinary businesses rooted in South Seattle, like Tarik Abdullah’s A DJ and a Cook and That Brown Girl Cooks!, to small mechanics, computer repair shops, and pharmacies.
The fund’s $2.5 million comes from federal Community Development Block Grants. As a condition of this funding, the businesses selected all have five or fewer employees, and the business owner must make 80% or less of area median income (or about $66,700).
It is intended to help businesses financially reeling from Gov. Inslee’s orders to close non-essential businesses and in-person dining to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
All in the Cut barber shop in Rainier Beach, one of the businesses that received a $10,000 grant, saw its revenue stream dry up after it was forced to close.
“My income’s just completely off, so it’s been tough,” said Tony Pines, owner of All in the Cut. The funding from the city will help him pay employees, rent, business expenses and his own bills. “It’s been a struggle mentally, financially as well. But the fund helped out a lot.”
“It was an incredible help,” said Coté Soerens, co-founder of Resistencia Coffee in the South Park neighborhood. The funding is less than a third of the monthly expenses for the business, but Soerens is grateful. It will allow the coffee shop to make payroll for at least a month.
Resistencia Coffee lost around 80% of its business after the coronavirus swept through the region, Soerens said. While the coffee shop transitioned to offering to-go orders, South Park is a low-density neighborhood, and most people living there are working from home and forgoing any in-person patronage, she said.
“We’re not a drive-through coffee shop, our business is all about connection, and that is what is not allowed now,” she said.
Almost 9,000 businesses applied for the funding, but only 250 — or less than three percent of them — received it, “demonstrating that the need goes far beyond what the City can provide without further support from the private sector, philanthropic partners and economic relief from the federal government,” according to a press release from Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office.
While he was grateful to receive the funding, Pines also thought about businesses that did not receive it, and are similarly struggling.
The applicants were chosen partly at random. They were sorted by Census tract and grouped into either high-displacement or low-displacement areas based on the City’s displacement risk index, said Kelsey Nyland, spokesperson in the mayor’s office, in an email. Businesses were then chosen by lottery from each category, and almost 75% were chosen from the high displacement category, according to Nyland. “Weighting the investments towards high-displacement risk areas allowed the City to target businesses that are more likely to experience economic shocks,” according to the press release.
Nearly 80% of the businesses chosen are owned by people of color, according to the City. The Office of Economic Development focused its outreach on historically underrepresented communities, raising awareness through neighborhood organizations and offering the application in eight languages, Nyland said. Eight businesses in the Central District (by the Emerald’s count) were awarded the grants, and 18 in the Chinatown-International District.
Ahmed Ali, co-founder of Othello Station Pharmacy, was pleasantly surprised to receive the funding, and impressed by how quickly the City dispersed it.
“It’s honestly a big morale booster for us,” he said. “It’s not a big amount of contribution towards our need, but it was very much welcome, and an uplift to ensure that we continue to do our work,” he said.
The pharmacy, one of few independent ones in the city, is located near Othello Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, in “the heart of southeast Seattle.” Despite being in a convenient location for commuters, the spread of coronavirus caused a decrease in foot traffic, and the business has lost between 35 and 50% in revenue since March, Ali estimated.
The pharmacy will continue to stay open to provide medications, even if it starts operating at a loss, Ali said, but the funding will allow him to pay employees and some of the rent. Pharmacy employees are delivering medications to everyone free of charge.
Mayor Durkan and the City previously enacted measures to help small businesses, including deferring utility payments, a temporary moratorium on evictions for business tenants, and more.
The City will launch another round of grants in the next few weeks. The plan is for most of the future funding to come from philanthropic donations, according to Nyland in the mayor’s office. “Future rounds will be determined by how much money the City can fundraise,” she said. So far, the City has raised a little over $400,000 for the next round of funding, Nyland said.
For now, Ali is hoping the pharmacy can get money from the federal stimulus, though “it is a very difficult process honestly, for small businesses,” he said. “It’s just a wait and see what happens game at this point.”
Resistencia Coffee has been applying for grants from its credit union and the state. In the meantime, though revenue is low, she has been encouraged by the generosity of neighbors. “I’m hopeful that we can rely on our neighborhood and our customers,” she said. “They’ve been incredibly generous.”
Chetanya Robinson is a Seattle-based journalist.
Featured image: Othello Station Pharmacy (Photo: Susan Fried)