The state’s “Back to Business” (B2B) program has distributed $111 million in relief grants out of money received from the American Rescue Plan President Joe Biden signed into law last March, and Hyde Park businesses have received at least $400,000 in support.
More than half of the B2B grand money remains unallocated; businesses can apply for it online through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity’s (DCEO) website.
“The purpose of government is to deliver for the people whom we serve,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said on Jan. 20 at a Sip & Savor coffeehouse in Bronzeville, 78 E. 47th St., which got a $5,000 grant. “After the success of last year’s Business Interruption Grants, which provided $290 million in relief to over 9,000 small businesses across our state, it’s clear that these investments had a big impact. It is also clear that more entrepreneurs need additional relief to stabilize their businesses and to build for the future.
“The men and women of the General Assembly have helped do that, working with me to build the Back to Business program,” he said. “These are not loans, so businesses getting help won’t owe a cent back to the state.”
Seventy-one percent of recipients are in “hard-hit industries” like restaurants, taverns, arts organizations and salons, said Pritzker, and 79% of the money has gone to areas disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic or low-income ZIP codes. More than half of the grants have gone to minority-owned businesses, and 43% of the recipients applied for, but did not receive, BIG grants.
DCEO worked to get the word out about the B2B program with the state’s Small Business Development Centers, local elected officials and other community leaders and did local outreach, including one on 47th Street in September.
Department Acting Director Sylvia Garcia said B2B built on the Business Interruption Grants (BIG), which debuted in 2020 and were also awarded to a number of businesses in Hyde Park. She said BIG was mostly focused “in that moment on mitigations that people were going through” and that B2B is “focused a lot on operating losses.”
“We tried to build on the success of BIG but make it even more clear and more transparent,” Garcia said. “Folks had very clear paperwork that they provided: it’s actually a tax return from 2019 versus 2020. It’s a very clear calculation where we take a difference of how much you made in 2019 versus 2020, and the awards are structured based on that operating loss. BIG was similar, but it wasn’t exactly the same.”
There was more statewide outreach this time, too: more than 100 community navigators for the application across Illinois instead of 13 for BIG.
Trez V. Pugh III said his B2B grants primarily benefitted his Sip & Savor coffeehouses in Bronzeville; his Hyde Park location, 5301 S. Hyde Park Blvd., benefitted from a grant from the University of Chicago at the beginning of the pandemic. Wherever it comes from, he stressed the primacy of working capital.
“It’s almost like oxygen: we need it to breathe. And without it, we will become extinct,” he said. “(The B2B grant) allowed us to pay our gas, our lights, our insurance, our taxes, our payroll; it helped me with my accountant and my attorney fees — I think you get the picture. The most important thing for me is it helped me with retention for my employees. Without this grant, it was pretty sure that I would have to lay off employees.”
Pigment International, pigmentintl.com, a Hyde Park multimedia platform run by Patricia Andrews-Keenan, began five years ago and got a $20,000 B2B grant. She runs several digital newsletters every week and a quarterly digital magazine on top of a yearly print edition.
“Originally we wanted to talk about artists, because we didn’t think that artists got publicity,” she said. “I said if I could work directly with artists to tell their stories, it would help to elevate them. Because everyone needs to be written about if you want to sell work.”
From Pigment International’s beginning, Andrews-Keenan has taken Chicago artists to Art Basel’s show in Miami Beach, Florida; upon her return last year, she got word that she had received the grant. “I cannot tell you how excited I was, because in this business, it’s a look-and-feel kind of thing,” she said.
Some of the money has gone to redesign Pigment International’s newsletters and delivery system, allowing her to distribute content more often. Andrews-Keenan bought a template to redo the shopping platform, which launched last week. She bought airfare and accommodations to Italy for the upcoming Venice Biennale, to cover Simone Leigh, the first Black woman artist to represent the United States at its national pavilion at the biyearly exhibition. And she hired a consultant to work on Pigment International’s five-year plan.
“I think creativity is one of those things that adds to an economy that can’t be faked, that can’t be reproduced. So we have to continue to support creativity, because it sets us apart as human beings,” Andrews-Keenan said. “It makes the city unique. An artist in Chicago is different than an artist in New York is different than an artist in LA, the way they do their work. I think you have to elevate them.”
CMS Trophies & Plaques, 606 E. 61st St., got $20,000, which allowed owner Martin W. Redd to catch up on bills, install a shutter in front of his front windows, purchase a new printing machine and hire two part-time employees. Before receipt of the grant, CMS’s payroll “wasn’t big at all, because I was the only one here working,” Redd said with a laugh.
The pandemic dropped CMS’s income down to about 30% of pre-pandemic levels, as school sports leagues and several nonprofits ceased operating.
“It really went down bad,” said Redd, who opened the business 31 years ago in Chatham. Business has picked up since the move to West Woodlawn, and CMS got city grants before getting the B2B in November.
Redd may buy more equipment with the money. “The printers that we use here are on the high end-side; they run around $500-600,” he said. “This process allows us to do photographs and things like that. And we do laser engravings.”
Roddie Coutee, who runs The ABI Project footwear brand, theabiproject.com, out of her Hyde Park house, got a $5,000 B2B grant. She designs her footwear on a computer at home, ships the designs overseas and gets samples back. All of the marketing, packing and shipping and local pickups are done from Hyde Park.
The ABI Project started six years ago. In spite of the pandemic recession, Coutee has found recent success, which she ascribes to public support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the amount of time people have spent living, and therefore shopping, at home.
“People have been on social media more, it’s been getting me more likes, and people have been gravitating towards me, my style and the pieces that I create,” she said. “I feel like the pandemic and Black Lives Matter both went hand-in-hand with the success of my business.”
“I think people had more time on their hands to shop online because nothing else was open, and those women who love to shop were looking for an outlet. ‘I can’t go to the store and buy anything. I can’t go to Zara or Saks to buy anything right now, so I want to see what’s online.’ And they discovered new vendors and new companies, and I feel that that’s what has helped my business grow.”
Coutee got her B2B grant last month and used it to fund her spring footwear line. “Samples are pretty much up like $80 and $100 a pop,” she said, “and of course you have to get color samples to see how different textures and colors look on different styles. I usually get around six different samples of each shoe, and that takes up a lot of the money, and then there’s inventory on top of that.”
Like many businesses in Hyde Park, The ABI Project is running into issues with the global supply chain and inflation. Coutee just paid $2,300 for a recent order of 80 boots from China, up from $1,100-1,500. Sample costs have increased, too: her suppliers have told her that they are increasingly having to outsource work due to worker shortages on their ends.
“It trickles down to me,” Coutee said. Many of the companies she has worked with in the past accepted partial payments, but many of them have folded and not completed their orders. She is therefore paying all the money up front in hopes of getting a better return on her investment.
“Having that extra (B2B) money really helped out,” Coutee said. “I was in a better position financially to pay up front and not have to worry about it because of that,” she said. And I really appreciate it. That was a big weight off my shoulders, because if I didn’t have it up front, then I wouldn’t be able to have my merchandise, or I would have had to wait until I had all of the money.”
Though money helps individual business owners with rising costs and unexpected expenses, macroeconomic issues with supply chains and inflation are at play in the whole economy — issues that state governments, which do not control monetary policy, are less well-equipped than the federal government or Federal Reserve to handle.
A franchise tax reform under Pritzker’s administration has enabled up to 400,000 small businesses to reduce their state taxes through federal tax deductions, and a business apprenticeship tax credit was also created.
Pritzker said his administration has also built back up Illinois Small Business Development Centers that offer technical assistance to new businesses which, he said, were cut back significantly under the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. Three exist near Hyde Park, at Build Bronzeville, 5055 S. Prairie Ave., YWCA Metro Chicago, 6144 S. Cottage Grove Ave., and the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, 1750 E. 71st St.
Combining state aid to child care providers and local government services with the BIG and B2B grants, Pritzker said the state has provided $1.5 billion total in pandemic-related economic relief.