PBC small businesses part 2: Who the Restart Business Grant was designed for … and who it wasn't
Updated: May 15
What do you get when you combine an abandoned West Palm Beach storefront, a determined local resident and the ever-lingering presence of a virus that refuses to leave the city’s premises? The answer: A meaningful moment in time that Janet DeVita, 65, will never truly forget.
Standing just outside a neatly packed array of shops on North Dixie Highway, the recently established business owner remembers taking a deep breath and—despite her better judgment—allowing the famously dangerous question of “what if” to occupy her usually tidy thoughts. What if she took a chance on something she’d never done before? What if she catalyzed a dream that had been safely tucked away in her mind for far too long? What if she took the ultimate risk and—approximately one year into the COVID-19 pandemic—opened her own small business?
With her closely-cropped hair fluttering in the warm Florida breeze, this particular memory shows DeVita giving one last glance to a deserted storefront she had walked past more times than she could count. Peering through the building’s front-facing window, DeVita realized at that specific moment that the answer to her internal debate was—clear as the glass she was staring through—right in front of her eyes.
Her mind made up, she turned and made the several-yard stride over to D is for Dog, a pet store located a few doors away from the empty storefront where Denise Hull—her friend and future business partner—would agree to help bring her idea into existence.
“My whole life I always dreamed of doing something like this. … It was always sort of in the back of my mind,” DeVita said, “and I said, ‘It's now or never. I'm going to do it; I don't care that it's a pandemic.’ So, I went for it.”
Aware that Hull had only recently established D is for Dog—approximately two months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit—and had managed to keep her doors open, DeVita believed this particular businesswoman would be the perfect partner for her passionate endeavor.
Emboldened by the success of D is for Dog and acutely aware that the area in which she resided lacked a local gift shop, Hull agreed to utilize the skills she had taken away from her corporate America experiences and—despite the pandemic looming over every small business in the area—open the boutique with her friend.
“(December of 2020) was when the ‘D is for Design’ got into my head,” Hull said, “and I swear to you, it was right here, … I'm like, ‘I have to do this.’”
As of May 7, 2021, D is for Design had two proud co-owners and was officially open for business.
However, as decisive and proactive as these strong-willed women were, they couldn’t ignore the unwelcome occupant loitering just outside their doors: COVID-19 and the unyielding financial devastation it had brought about everywhere it went. Like many local entrepreneurs and small business owners, both women found themselves adhering to certain safety protocols, including mandatory mask-wearing, limited occupancy and curbside pickup options.
While neither woman was forced to close down their businesses or lay off designated employees, they still faced their own series of challenges: Namely, the fact that they were unable to benefit from a number of grants specifically designed for people in their position.
Given that both DeVita’s and Hull’s businesses were located within one of Palm Beach County’s 39 municipalities, made less than $5 million annually and were unable to apply for the federal government’s PPP loans, one might think they would qualify for one of the county’s primary forms of COVID-19 relief: the Restart Business Grant. This was not the case.
While Hull acknowledged to receiving some aid from the city from the city of West Palm Beach, she did not say how much she was given. Nonetheless, she found that D is for Dog adhered to all but one of the Restart Business Grant's initial eligibility requirements: It hadn’t been operating prior to Oct. 1, 2019.
DeVita, on the other hand, wasn’t even aware that this grant—or any other local aid, for that matter—was available for the taking.
“I never went through those channels,” DeVita said. “I’d never heard of those opportunities … I never really researched it, I guess.”
If the Restart Business Grant was designed to help the county’s small businesses make it through the pandemic, why is it that Hull’s and DeVita’s personal enterprises were ultimately excluded from this resource?
Meri Weymer, the Housing Finance supervisor for the city and one of the grant’s co-creators, has since asserted that the grant and its development process was much more difficult than uninvolved individuals might automatically assume.
“Nobody predicted COVID-19 and the money that we got was very quick,” Weymer said, “and we had to come up with something very quickly.”
By “very quickly,” Weymer alluded to the deadline the federal government had given her team in the beginning stages of the grant’s development process: approximately one month.
Allocated an estimated $80 million, the team responsible for initiating the grant was given little more than 30 days to construct the entire application process, which included determining how much each small business could receive and developing the online tools necessary for application submissions. While the development process itself had to be completed by June 30, 2020, the team had until Dec. 31, 2020—just under six months– to distribute all of the federal aid they had received.
Given that COVID-19 caused many individuals to work from home for extended periods of time, the team behind the grant determined that it needed to be initiated through the department’s computer information system. To ensure that the money was distributed fairly, they created an online web portal that small business owners could access remotely in order to apply for this aid; the grant’s corresponding formula was then utilized by the web portal to determine exactly how much aid each applicant could receive based on their eligibility.
This entire process was heavily backed by the Board of County Commissioners, who needed to give their “blessing” to the grant’s distributors—Weymer and her team—before eligible applicants could actually receive it.
Despite the extensive amount of effort the grant’s distributors put into creating it, there were several county residents who were not happy with how it was initially drafted: namely, those who operated out of their homes and/or weren’t forced to close their doors.
“We had a lot of businesses say, “Hey, that's not fair. You know, we got hurt too,” Weymer said. “‘Even though we weren’t mandated to close, we still lost.’”
Amanda Hughes, a certified public accountant for the county’s Department of Housing and Economic Development and another of the grant’s co-creators, reiterated that their team needed to revise it numerous times over their allotted six-month period, creating what they came to refer to as “phases 1, 2 and 3.”
Phase 1 required applicants to provide the web portal with two things to move their application forward: a business tax receipt and a W-3 form. However, after receiving numerous phone calls from potential recipients whose applications were being put on hold, Weymer and Hughes learned that many of the county’s small business owners didn't even know what a business tax receipt was or that it was legally required to do business in the area.
A mandatory step in the grant’s application process, the act of securing a business tax receipt involves a consecutive series of steps: To do legal business in any one of the county’s municipalities, a small business owner must contact his or her local clerk’s office, report the type of business they already/will have, pay a registration fee—which must be renewed annually—and obtain proof of the registration via a business tax receipt. The reality that many of their applicants were wholly unaware of this requirement proved to be an additional hurdle the already pressed team had to navigate around.
Additionally, the grant’s distributors found that—despite their efforts to assist as many small businesses as their funding would allow—there was one group of applicants who found themselves unable to apply for the grant in its early stages: independent contractors. Used interchangeably with the term “sole proprietor,” independent contractors tend to work solo and, therefore, do not usually possess a business tax receipt; they report all of their business-related income to the IRS on personal tax returns instead.
As such, the web portal did not deem this demographic eligible in the grant’s early days of distribution. Given their team’s tight timeframe, Weymer and Hughes sought to mitigate this particular issue as quickly as possible.
“We learned and we pivoted as new information came in,” Hughes said. “Commissioners were being called to say, ‘Hey, why wasn't this person eligible?’ And then the different phases came from that.”
Even though business owners such as Hull and DeVita were unable to benefit from this particular grant, Weymer and Hughes would ultimately label it a success. This conclusion stems from more than just their personal opinions and experience as some of the grant’s co-creators; it is backed by the reported numbers themselves.
For starters, their team’s consistent revisions made the grant available to a demographic much larger and more diverse than phase 1’s initial target: Of the 5,182 approved applicants, approximately 10.5% were food-based providers, 34.5% were professional services, 22.6% were hair/nail salons and 16% identified as brick-and-mortar businesses.
Additionally, an estimated 72.23% of the total number of grant recipients are reported to have made less than $250,000 in gross receipts or sales—certifying that the recipients of this grant really were “small” businesses—and not larger enterprises looking to snag aid away from the businesses that needed it more.
Some people may agree with Weymer’s and Hughes’s conclusion; others may not. But there is one simple fact neither party can truly deny: When in doubt, double check the numbers. Even if the distributors of this grant chose not to speak for themselves, the numbers they received—after all was said and done—certainly have.
By Brenna Brown