Central Texas businesses find challenges applying for federal assistance

Tiny Tails to You co-owner Chelsea Phillips is one of many area business owners who have applied for federal assistance amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Brian Rash/Community Impact Newspaper)
Tiny Tails to You co-owner Chelsea Phillips is one of many area business owners who have applied for federal assistance amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Brian Rash/Community Impact Newspaper)

Tiny Tails to You co-owner Chelsea Phillips is one of many area business owners who have applied for federal assistance amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Brian Rash/Community Impact Newspaper)

The timeline seems like a blur to him, but John Antonelli recalls he and his team at Antonelli's Cheese Shop had been preparing for a shelter-in-place protocol around the time South by Southwest Conference & Festivals was canceled March 6.

Following the cancellation of SXSW, Antonelli said his wholesale business dropped by 90% overnight.

“What it told us from a business perspective was that Mayor [Steve] Adler and the leadership in Austin was going to be more progressive faster than other cities,” he said. “So, I started looking at models around the globe of what that was going to look like.”

By March 22 at 1 p.m., Antonelli’s was not allowing anyone in its shop in Central Austin and had moved to curbside pickup. He launched new phone and online ordering systems that day, and by March 25, the cheese shop known for its in-person tastings and classes had transferred to all online events.

“We changed 10 years of business in 10 days,” he said.

From a business standpoint, Antonelli said he has been trying to stay ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic, and since the leadership in Austin has proven to be progressive in most instances, he has adopted pandemic-forced protocols as soon as possible.

But one thing he, along with so many other business owners in Central Texas and beyond, cannot stay ahead of is when and if he will get federal financial assistance to help his business.

Bottleneck on the road to assistance

The federal government deployed a financial safety net in the form of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, signed into law March 27.

The CARES Act features several programs administered through the Small Business Administration, including the Paycheck Protection Program.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic has affected so many businesses throughout the country, an April 16 report from the SBA states the first wave of funding has run out. By that day, almost two weeks after the program went into effect, the administration had approved more than 1.6 million PPP loans totaling $349 billion.

Texas accounts for 134,737 of those loans, totaling more than $28.4 billion—a figure eclipsed only by $33.4 billion for businesses in California.

These numbers help explain why Antonelli has so far not received the answers he needs regarding his PPP application.

Antonelli said he ended up applying for assistance through a second bank because he has not yet heard back from his personal banker on the status of his application. While he maintains he understands banks are experiencing an incredibly high volume of applications for assistance, he said he also needs to be as proactive as he can to get what he needs.

“It’s like playing musical chairs,” he said. “You know when you’re playing musical chairs and your heart’s racing and you don’t want to be the last one who’s not on the chair? That’s what this feels like.”

Antonelli said he does not want to name the banks he has been working through but said in his experience the second, smaller bank he sought out has been more communicative and quicker to respond to his questions.

Anxiety trying to secure loans

James Klingman, senior vice president of lending at the Austin branch of Vista Bank, said as of April 17 his location has processed 68 approved applications, each of which has already been funded or will be funded within the allotted SBA 10-day turnaround.

The loan amounts at all Vista locations across Texas have so far ranged from $1,400 to $7.8 million, Klingman said, and added that though the first wave of federal funding has run out, Vista Bank employees are not only working to finish out the completed applications at their branch, they are also adding infrastructure, technology and team members to handle more PPP applications for as long as necessary.

Klingman agreed with Antonelli’s assertion that smaller banks are better equipped right now to help local small businesses than larger, multinational banks. He pointed to an editorial piece picked up by CNBC and written by Vista Bank CEO Jonh Steinmetz that contends community banks’ proximity to local businesses are crucial to getting their clients the information and help they need.

Chelsea Phillips said she is one of the luckier business owners in the Central Texas area in that she secured PPP funding she had requested hours before the money ran out April 16.

Phillips co-owns Tiny Tails to You, a traveling petting zoo based in East Austin.

Like Antonelli, she has transferred to online events, which consist of her showing off her menagerie of rabbits, chickens, various lizards and turtles, among many other animals, to audiences via a computer screen.

The online events have helped a little bit, she said, but not enough to keep the company afloat.

Phillips secured her loan through Frost Bank, which she considers a smaller bank and believes has been working hard to process as many loans as possible for local businesses.

“I have friends who have applied through some of the bigger banks, and they weren’t even able to tell them if they were going to be able to process their loan,” she said. “They had no timeline.”

For many business owners trying to secure federal funding in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, the money and communication have so far not come.

Gretchen Vance, a small-business owner and Lakeway City Council member, said she has been working with Prosperity Bank to secure a PPP loan, but as of April 16 she said she still has no idea what to expect.

Along with three other partners, Vance owns Electric Avenue Acro, an acrobatics and fitness gym located in Spicewood. On top of the PPP loan, she has applied for the SBA’s Disaster Assistance Loan, butso far she has only heard that her credit report has been pulled, she said.

“Although we have no idea which one of the SBA programs pulled that [report] because the credit reports just say ‘SBA,’” Vance said. “So, where we stand now is just the unknown. We haven’t received any information on the Payroll Protection Program, nor have we received any information on the [disaster assistance] program.”

Help during a challenging time

Chris Furlow, president and CEO of the Texas Bankers Association, said due to the sheer volume of money going out through the federal programs, the COVID-19 pandemic represents an extremely challenging time not only for business owners, but for lenders as well.

“I’ve likened it to driving a Mack truck through an oil funnel,” Furlow said. “We expected there would be some challenges, and there have been. Most of them have been focused on SBA’s technology being legacy systems, and the protocols were not set up for this type of volume.”

Furlow also described community bank employees as “unsung heroes” who have to manage PPP loans, process public- and private-sector paychecks, and administer help for people such as senior citizens. He said without them, the economy would not just be slowed down—it would halt entirely.

But small-business owners who are walking a tightrope said more help is needed.

For Vance, as well as others, questions still loom, including whether her business is included in the first wave of funding, how much money to expect, and if and when a new wave of funding will be released.

Nina Ramon, a public affairs and economic relations specialist with the SBA, said whether the economy is in crisis or not, she often recommends small-business owners work with community lenders.

They are important now because, as Ramon explained, from Oct. 1, 2018 to Sept. 31, 2019, the SBA guaranteed 63,000 loans valued at $28 billion. In the last 14 days, the SBA gave out more than 1.6 million PPP loans amounting to about $349 billion.

“Since this whole process started, the SBA staff has been extremely flexible because things have been changing minute by minute,” said Ramon, who works out of the SBA's San Antonio district office. “We’re going to stay flexible because we don’t know what tomorrow brings. We don’t know the rulings that are going to come out of D.C.”

Additionally, she said, the number of SBA-approved lenders increased from about 1,500 at the launch of the PPP program to almost 5,000 by April 17.

Because of these extreme and almost instantaneous increases, Ramon said she also recommends small-business owners visit with business assistance groups such as SCORE chapters, veteran business outreach centers, small-business development centers or women’s business centers.

SCORE Austin is the local branch of a national small-business mentoring nonprofit. The Austin branch helps businesses from Waco down to San Marcos, and nationally, SCORE has more than 300 chapters. Estimates from its Austin chapter website state in 2017 it helped start more than 585 businesses in Central Texas.

SCORE Austin mentor Jim Grimsley said his and other business mentoring organizations can offer small-business owners help navigating financial assistance through the SBA, but they can also help with collateral issues that come with this pandemic.

“A lot of people ... never have had to lay off 10 people or 15 people or to furlough them or to have conversations about why they have to cut their salaries,” Grimsley said. “Those are difficult conversations, and that is the kind of experience that small-business owners can draw off of from SCORE mentors, because we’ve all been there.”

Along with Antonelli and Phillips, Brooke Greer, co-owner and president of Contigo Catering, has worked with mentors at SCORE Austin.

Greer said her business remains open, but due to the pandemic she had to lay off her entire full-time staff, almost 20 employees, as well as upward of 75 part-time employees.

“We did that ... so that they could more easily apply and qualify for unemployment,” Greer said.

Greer said as of April 17 she was still waiting to hear back about her SBA loan applications.

She has been working with Grimsley during this time, and he has been talking her through her options and connected her with someone from the Texas State Small Business Development Center.

Because her business had been growing successfully since it opened in 2014, Greer said she had already been in touch with people from the SBDC to take advantage of some of the classes and programs they offer.

For now, Greer said, the focus has shifted.

“They’ve both sent over articles and links and information about what’s next, what to do and what’s available,” she said. “Because it is overwhelming. There is a lot of information out there.”

Often, business owners may feel like it is a sign of weakness to reach out for help, Grimsley said, and stressed seeking help from organizations such as SCORE and the SBDC signifies the opposite of weakness.

He also emphasized in a practically unprecedented economic crisis that is pummeling the national financial infrastructure on so many levels, it is important for loan applicants to understand seeking and acquiring loan assistance is going to be a slow process.

“You’ve got thousands of people out there doing this for the first time on the government side and on the bank side,” Grimsley said. “So there’s not much more you can do other than complete the forms correctly and follow up and build relationships so that you can get as immediate feedback as you can if there’s an issue with your application.”

As of April 20, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., were discussing a package to provide further funding to the PPP. In an April 17 statement, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Administrator of the SBA Jovita Carranza said the need for the program continues.

“We urge Congress to protect millions more American workers and their families by appropriating additional funding to support the PPP,” Mnuchin and Carranza wrote.

Until then, small-business owners such as Antonelli, Greer and Vance said they are doing everything they can to keep their businesses afloat.

The anxiety is super high. Stress is high,” Antonelli said. “You just want some sense that things are moving in one direction.”

Brian Rash and Jack Flagler