“At the start of the pandemic, the office of economic development began laying out its business response plan to support the Sugar Land economy, recognizing the economic crisis that this health crisis was going to bring,” Economic Development Director Elizabeth Huff said during a May 26 workshop meeting with City Council.
While the repercussions of the coronavirus have been fluid and dynamic and business plans have continued to evolve, Huff said the campaign’s main focus is on immediate economic needs for local businesses over the next six months and creating programs to get them safely reopened and back to normal as quickly as possible.
“This #AllInForSLTX campaign is the overarching umbrella,” Assistant Economic Development Director Devin Rodriguez said. “We have several components underneath it that are working toward that goal of promoting and supporting our businesses and helping them generate cash flow and get back to business.”
The first component of the campaign is the Sweet Cash Program, which will incentivize customers to purchase gift cards from local Sugar Land businesses, Rodriguez said. In return, customers receive a gift card of half their amount spent for a local business that was negatively impacted by COVID-19. The remaining half is used to send a gift card to a local front-line worker.
For example, the city could purchase $2,000 of gift cards from a local pizzeria and a local nail salon. Then, a customer would purchase an $80 gift card, for example, from any local business and submits proof of this purchase to the Sweet Cash Program online. In return, the customer would receive a $40 gift card to the nail salon in the mail, and a local front-line worker would receive a $40 gift card to the pizzeria.
This generates an $80 private investment from the customer and creates an $80 investment in the SL4B fund, making a total impact of $160 on the local economy, Rodriguez explained.
The city has a budget of $250,000 for this program from the Sugar Land 4B Corp. fund, Rodriguez said. $200,000 of this budget will go toward purchasing gift cards, she said.
“There’s many benefits to this,” Rodriguez said. “One, we have the opportunity to promote our local businesses. By purchasing these gift cards, it’s giving them a direct infusion of their cashflow, which is something that they definitely need right now. It also has a ‘pay-it-forward’ development of goodwill in Sugar Land. It also helps us leverage those private dollars from the original consumer that purchased the gift card to support our local businesses.”
To participate in Sweet Cash, businesses must apply. If selected, the SL4B will purchase $20 gift cards, Rodriguez said. Applications will be received on a first-come, first-served basis, depending on what businesses meet the requirements.
Some eligibility requirements for Sugar Land businesses include operating within the city, having fewer than 50 employees, certifying that they have been forced to close or quantifying revenue loss due to COVID-19. They must also be a hotel, retail, food and beverage, or service-oriented business.
In addition to Sweet Cash, events such as Sweet Summer Saturdays and ribbon-cuttings and movie nights will help stimulate the economy, said Teresa Preza, the assistant director for economic development overseeing tourism.
Sweet Summer Saturdays would take place in June and July, Preza said.
“These activations are intended to create opportunities to invigorate our businesses and thus the community,” Preza said. “They can be executed in person while practicing social distancing or perhaps even digitally.”
The #AllInForSLTX program comes in response to survey results from local business owners gathered in April.
On April 17—about a month after stay-home orders went into effect—the economic development department sent out surveys to gain insight on how local business owners were faring in Sugar Land, said Cam Yearty, the public/private partnerships manager for the city.
The survey was sent to about 1,000 business owners and yielded about 300 responses in about four days, Yearty shared during the workshop. Of these 300 respondents, 70% owned small businesses with fewer than 25 employees.
Results showed 92% of businesses experienced a decline in business due to COVID-19, and 30% experienced an 81%-100% decline in revenue, Yearty said. Additionally, 24% of survey responders reported furloughing or laying off at least 81% of their workforce.
“Not only are the businesses themselves hurting from a lack of revenue, but also our Sugar Land employees are hurting as well,” Yearty said.
The biggest concerns among respondents were revenue and cash flow, rent and payroll expenses. Suggestions for the city included prioritizing reopening businesses safely, helping navigate financial assistance and providing promotional support of local businesses, Yearty said.
“Businesses didn’t want a handout,” He said. “They wanted a number of things—some level of certainty and some level of support—but not a cash handout. What we heard was that promotion of local businesses is going to be essential as we work to reopen. We need to as a city do our part to let the wider community know that Sugar Land is open for business.”