By Terra Rivers | Managing Editor
On Wednesday, May 27, Urban Land Institute Austin held a virtual breakfast focusing on Economic Relief in Central Texas.
The breakfast included a discussion by a three-person panel; panelists were Veronica Briseno, Economic Development Director with the City of Austin, Diana Ramirez, Director of Economic Development & Strategic Investments with Travis County and Anthony Ruiz, District Director, San Antonio District Office with U.S. Small Business Administration.
Among the things discussed by the panelists was the magnitude of what offices had to undergo when the economic recovery effort began.
“We have a disaster assistance section within our organization,” Ruiz said. “What this is different and we realized the magnitude rather than being an isolated disaster like a flood, a fire or a tornado, it was nationwide. And that was a massive undertaking.”
Ruiz said in a matter of two weeks, the U.S. Small Business Administration had financed more than it had in a ten-year period providing small businesses; the organization distributed billions in funding rather than millions.
“When we saw how the economy with all the government orders was pretty much going to be shut down except for the essential businesses,” Ramirez said. “We knew the demand and the need was going to be overwhelming for our local communities, our business communities and especially for the small businesses in Travis County.”
Ramirez said Travis County Commissioners court approved the allocation $10 million for a business grant assistance, but the problem has been the slogging through the bureaucratic process to establish a brand-new program.
“We see the need out there; we think the $10 Million is not going to be nearly enough,” Ramirez said. “It’s a lot for us to manage and to get started administratively, but we know the need isn’t going to stop there, and more resources are going to be needed.”
Briseno said the first stage for Austin was the cancellation of the South by Southwest festival, which her department has a huge relationship with the organization.
Like Travis County, Briseno noted that Austin was not familiar with a business grant program.
Ramirez said the county is still a few weeks from launching a business assistance program, but the program will provide business coaching for grant recipients.
“I have a feeling that these social distancing rules that are in place now are going to be in place in some form or fashion until we have some sort of vaccine out there that’s proven effective,” Ramirez said, “Because otherwise people are going to be scared to go out to these businesses and frequent them.”
Travis County intends to work with businesses through their assistance program to help rework business plans to accommodate the new economy.
“It’s one thing to throw money at a small business, but it’ll never be enough if we don’t help them kind of change and create a model that works in this new economy,” Ramirez continued.
Travis County and Austin are looking to work with businesses to help provide necessary technology and tools to help them should a similar situation arise in the future.
“What we do would not be possible without the resource partners,” Ruiz said. “Ever since the COVID started, they right away put into action virtual training programs to meet the needs of companies that were in shutdown such as how to operate virtually, how to market virtually, how to assure sustainability and keep your doors open while in a virtual environment.”
Ruiz said they are monitoring current efforts but want to do more because more is needed.
The Payroll Protection Program Loans distributed to business and companies will be audited by the inspector general, and those who made fraudulent reports of employees or misused funds will be held accountable.
The U.S. Small Business Administration keeps a portfolio of all of the applications that have been approved and the funding that has been distributed.
Ruiz said many minority business leaders experienced issues obtaining the loan as many banks were approving loans only to those who had previous loans, accounts or credit cards with them.
“Many individuals that were sole proprietors didn’t have a business account; they kept it personal, which they were initially requiring,” Ruiz said. “But the lenders that stepped up to help fill that gap.”
Briseno said conversations will continue between community leaders as they continue to navigate the pandemic.