St. Petersburg City Council members expressed frustration Thursday about problems with the city’s Fighting Chance Fund aimed at putting money into residents’ and small businesses pockets who have been negatively impacted by COVID-19 closures.
During a virtual Committee of the Whole meeting, some members of the board complained about not receiving information about how much money had been allocated and to whom in advance of the meeting. They also worried about businesses who have been denied assistance, but we’re not told why.
As of Wednesday, 230 small businesses have been approved for a Fighting Chance Fund Grant while 415 had been rejected. Another 1,037 applications were still under review.
That means nearly twice as many businesses have been denied as have been awarded funds. For individuals, the approval rate as of Wednesday was just 34% with 653 applications approved and 1,256 denied, with another 158 applications still under review.
City officials acknowledged there were areas of opportunity, particularly in communicating with applicants.
Some businesses reached out to City Council members confused about why they were denied.
“There was no other information in that email about why they were not approved,” Gabbard said of the communication with small business applicants who received denials.
That poses the question, if they don’t know why they were denied, how can they remedy those problems?
“There will be a distinct reason along with that denial” going forward, St. Pete Small Business Liaison Jessica Eilerman said.
She described a series of improvements city officials have implemented, including communications strategies.
Applicants will now have the ability to message employees for help at every stage of the process instead of having to call and navigate heavy call volume that often led to delays in answers.
The city on Thursday also expanded its eligibility for small businesses, now including business owners who operate out of co-working space.
Eilerman encouraged those who were denied funding, but don’t know why, to reach out to the city and that information would be provided. She also said some applicants who were initially denied, could qualify under the city’s expanded criteria, which also includes the addition of travel agencies and tour operators, businesses in operation for at least six months (instead of a year) and removal of the requirement that businesses must be at least 50% locally owned by city residents.
City Council members also posed some additional potential additions to eligibility, including to those who have home-based businesses.
“I understand that this is triage, but I’m just trying to think of what else we can do to help out,” City Council member Darden Rice said, noting that home and internet-based businesses also employ people.
So far the city has raised nearly $1.5 million in private sector funding for the program including about $500,000 left still to allocate.
The Fighting Chance Fund allocates up to $5,000 for qualifying small businesses within the city and $500 for residents.