TARPON SPRINGS — Small businesses in Tarpon Springs have really felt the sting of coronavirus-induced closures, as the high season that started so strong in late February was snuffed out quicker than a candle by mid-March.
And while state and federal governments have unveiled various stimulus packages and payouts to help keep the economy afloat during the pandemic, most local governments have yet to jump into the mix.
But with their tourism-based economy foundering, Tarpon Springs officials weren’t content to let local merchants wait for outside help. Therefore, city commissioners approved a Small Business Endurance Grant that would provide a $1,000 one-time payment to support small businesses experiencing hardships related to COVID-19.
“I think this is a great opportunity to help our local businesses that are struggling economically,” Mayor Chris Alahouzos said of the resolution during an emergency meeting conducted by Zoom teleconference April 7. “I’ve received many phone calls from local business owners who have expressed concern, and they’re looking for our help.”
According to the grant requirements, the business in question must be public facing (i.e. retail restaurant, bar, salon, etc.) and be directly impacted by the public health requirements of COVID-19.
Additionally, the business must be located in the city limits, have fewer than 50 employees and must be in need of working capital to continue operations. An owner that owns multiple businesses would only be eligible for a single payment.
Those not eligible for the grant include national chains, franchises, nonprofits and in-home or virtual businesses.
The resolution also states the funds must be used for things like working capital, payroll, debt payments, and rent, lease or mortgage payments, and not for personal uses or uses prohibited by federal, state or local laws.
The $100,000 in funding to back the grant would come from the city’s emergency reserve fund, a decision supported by the mayor and the other four commissioners.
“I agree to use $100,000 from the emergency fund,” Alahouzos said. “It’s a very healthy fund — $8.8 million dollars — and it’s for an emergency, and this is the worst emergency we’ve ever had.”
The idea to help businesses with a cash infusion was first floated by Commissioner Connor Donovan last month.
“We were all asking ourselves, how can we do more?” Donovan said, noting he began conducting research into how other states and communities were handling the crisis when he came up with the grant idea. “Our job as city leaders isn’t to sit back saying, ‘When is big government gonna take care of us?’ We need to take care of ourselves.”
Once the idea was approved, staff from several departments worked swiftly to get the parameters in place. Officials said they made the application process as simple as possible, using a section of the city’s website, as well as a dedicated phone number (727-943-1162) and email address (Endurancegrant@ctsfl.us) dedicated to expediting the process.
“We made it simple so small business owners can navigate it and we can get the checks in the mail as quickly as possible,” City Manager Mark LeCouris said, noting they initially planned to have a two-week window for the applications to be submitted on a first-come, first-serve basis but later agreed to look into extending the deadline.
He said merchants could also apply in person at the City Clerks’ drive-thru window at City Hall, and noted their business tax license must be up-to-date.
While the commissioners and staff were separated by distance and appearing via split screen, they were all on the same page when it came time to approve the grant.
“I’ve noticed our residents are supporting our local businesses now more than ever,” Vice-Mayor Townsend Tarapani said, “and I think it’s important we stand by them and do the right thing.”
Commissioner Rea Sieber, who owns a wine shop at the Sponge Docks, said she didn’t agree with the “one check per owner” criteria, but she did agree that “keeping it simple and fast is of the utmost importance” for merchants who are losing money, and hope, by the day. “They may never reopen if they don’t get some help.”
The resolution passed by a 5-0 vote.
Officials said they plan to open the application process on Thursday, April 9, and leave it open for at least two weeks. Alahouzos also stated if they exceed the $100,000 allotment, he has no problem dip-ping further into the reserve fund to make sure all eligible businesses are taken care of.
“If it’s not enough money, I have no problem increasing the number,” Alahouzos said by phone afterward.
“Because right now we have no idea how many are going to apply… and we want to make sure everyone gets a check.”
Asked about being one of the first communities in the county to enact such a plan to help struggling local businesses, the mayor said, “the small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and we’ve got to be able to help them. It’s not their fault they had to shut their doors, so we need to help them so we can keep the economy going.”
Earlier in the meeting, the commission approved several resolutions related to the pandemic and the extension of emergency orders that were enacted in its wake.
One resolution suspends shutting off water for nonpayment until further notice, and another enables extensions for building permits and inspections.
“I support it 100%,” Alahouzos said, “because we need to keep people working.”
For more information on Tarpon Springs’ Small Business Endurance Grant, visit ctsfl.us.