With the coronavirus pandemic hurting small businesses, two Burlington County towns are trying their best to save their main streets. County officials are also instituting a loan program to help any businesses that might slip through the cracks.
BORDENTOWN CITY — From City Hall on Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown City Mayor James Lynch Jr. has had a front row seat to the downtown’s transformation from a local watering hole to a vibrant business district.
Then the coronavirus came, and he watched it become a ghost town overnight.
The fancy Italian restaurant, Toscano, and the hip brewery, Tindall Road, were no longer able to welcome patrons. One of the newest stores, The Candy Jar by 1892, was left to do only a fraction of its business during what should have been one of its most profitable times of the year.
On nice weekend days, Farnsworth Avenue should be bustling with city residents and day-trippers alike. But with a statewide shutdown and social distancing to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the mayor, who has served the city for 30 years, is worried.
Now Lynch and others in Burlington County’s Main Street business districts are taking action. They say not only are the small businesses at stake, but the vitality of their towns and the years of effort officials and business owners have put in to revitalize these districts.
“I can’t look in the mirror and say I won’t do anything to help these businesses,” the mayor said. “If I walk down the street a year from now and it’s still bad, I can at least say I tried.”
On March 23, Lynch and the board of commissioners passed a resolution to explore a grant program for the small businesses within city limits.
The city is looking to institute a $220,000 program that would allow small businesses to apply for individual grants between $2,500 and $3,000. Officials are taking the money out of the city’s $2.8 million surplus.
City officials will look to finalize the application criteria for the grant program at Monday’s virtual commissioners meeting. Lynch is not sure what the criteria will be, but he said it will be designed to help the businesses with less overhead.
They want to move quickly.
“I want these checks cut by the third week of April, maybe the fourth week,” Lynch said.
Since it’s a grant program, businesses will not have to pay back the money.
Bordentown City has a bunch of small and micro businesses that need a cash infusion to survive through the spring, officials said.
Some, such as The Candy Jar by 1892, need to stay up to date on rent, maintain their employees and keep their supply chains moving. Others, such as the Town Barber Shop, just need to stay alive through the era of social distancing, since they can’t operate remotely.
“Having to close for the whole month of April is pushing it,” said Jennifer Fennimore, the owner of the Town Barber Shop. “If I get the grant I could probably run until the middle of May.”
The city, according to Lynch, needs all of the businesses to maintain the vibrancy of Farnsworth Avenue. And it needs the vibrancy of Farnsworth Avenue because the street is the foundation for the city’s identity, economy and housing market, he said.
“We have people who move here just because of the downtown,” Lynch said. “And if things go bad and close up, we’re losing tax revenue.”
“We’ll have a serious financial issue next year if a lot of these businesses fail,” he added.
Bordentown City is not alone in recognizing the importance of small business, and in working during the pandemic to help owners survive.
Mount Holly’s High Street and Mill Race Village, a vibrant downtown business district with a lot of walking traffic with shops and eateries, is the core of the town’s economy.
On March 30, the township council passed a resolution suspending payments on business loans that the township issued through its Urban Enterprise Zone Good Neighbor Loan Program.
The township program was born out of the efforts to revitalize High Street and its surrounding area by recycling money from the Urban Enterprise Zone program, a state program that offered seed money for new businesses in the form of loans.
The state program ended years ago. But since it ended, township officials have been reusing its loan payment money to make new loans to prospective businesses.
Nine township businesses have outstanding UEZ loans under the program, including Downtown Pizza and the Mill Race Village, which leases storefronts to different business owners.
To help these businesses get through the spring and summer, the township council passed the resolution suspending the Good Neighbor Loan Program payments. The resolution allows for “no interest or payments for 90 days,” Mayor Jason Jones said. It adds the payments to the back ends of the loans.
Five of the nine businesses with outstanding UEZ Good Neighbor loans have applied for the relief. As long as the businesses are up on their loan and tax payments, they will qualify, Jones said.
“We can’t forgive a loan if they are already not making payments,” he added.
“But we are giving them a little break during this time,” he concluded.
Audrey Winzinger, who owns Mill Race Inc., which is the landlord for the village shops, said help was needed as most small business in Burlington County and nationwide don’t have large cash reserves to weather long-term closures.
When Gov. Phil Murphy ordered nonessential businesses closed she urged towns to help small business with gap funding, saying they didn’t need millions of dollars just assistance for rents and other expenses while their businesses were unable to make money.
“Without it, those small business are within 30 days, maybe 90 days at max, of closing,” Winzinger said, noting the federal Small Business Administration loans can take a year before a applicant sees any money.
Not all county businesses will have access to local relief, so certain small operations will inevitably slip through the cracks, said state Sen. Troy Singleton.
That’s why the Burlington County Board of Chosen Freeholders and the Burlington County Bridge Commission, which is the county economic development authority, are using $900,000 from the county’s Small Business Loan Program, which typically helps business that can’t get loans from banks and lending institutions, to offer loans of up to $50,000 to businesses affected by the pandemic.
The goal is not just to help businesses that can’t get relief from local governments, according to Singleton, who also serves as chair of the bridge commission. It’s also to help the small businesses that are less likely to apply for state and federal aid programs.
Most state and federal relief programs will require stipulations, such as higher debt payments, that only larger firms can handle.
“The micro businesses will be our best candidates. Our paperwork is more streamlined and designed to get capital out on the street,” Singleton said. “We think these guys will get lost in the shuffle and we don’t want to see that happen.”
The county program, unlike the two local initiatives, is a traditional loan program, meaning the money must be paid back, with interest, within a fixed amount of time, in this case 10 years.
As “working capital loans,” the loans are supposed to be used for day-to-day needs. So under the program, for each full-time job saved, the applicant can get $17,500 up to the $50,000 maximum, according to Singleton. And for each new full-time job created, the applicant can receive $35,000 up to $50,000.
Singleton said a handful of businesses have applied for the loans so far, but that he’s hoping they will get some more.
“Our goal is to retain jobs and help businesses survive the pandemic,” Singleton added.
“Everybody’s in a crunch right now,” he said. “But our small businesses are the backbone of our economy. We hope this can be a bridge to better times.”