Challenges abound for owners trying to stay open in SCV

Earthbaby Boutique owner Renee Kennedy, left, and assistant Lisa Ingwersen. The store is open, and located on Main Street in Newhall on Thursday, May 07, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

While a number of small businesses across the Santa Clarita Valley are starting preparations to reopen, there’s a long way to go until normal operations resume.

That being said, many are still searching for funding to assist them in keeping their doors open until that new normal arrives. 

And while some have secured funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act’s Paycheck Protection Program or the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, others haven’t.

For Renee Kennedy, owner of Earthbaby Boutique, whether she receives funding is going to make or break her business, yet she struggled to even complete her applications.

“The website was so overcrowded that it was kicking everybody out,” she said, “so I would take hours trying to fill out a few pages and then it would be the same thing, it would just kick you out. And a lot of the time it wouldn’t save the information, so you’d have to go back and do it again and hope that it would hold.” 

Kennedy has applied for every loan or grant she’s qualified for, yet she’s had zero luck. “By the time you spend a couple hours applying for these things, you get the email saying that they’re out of funds.”

Though she tries to be creative in finding new ways to attract customers, as her business is considered essential and could remain open, it’s been slow. 

“Each day, I just feel like it’s more and more discouraging,” Kennedy added. “I really just feel like a business like mine is the type that you have to come in and shop and see the quality and touch it. And I feel like that’s why we’re not getting the online sales.”

With no income to be used to purchase new summer merchandise, she feels she’s entering a vicious cycle.

“The minute we open, I have nothing for summer, so I feel like this is just gonna affect us for months to come,” she said. “I really don’t see an end in sight.” 

Community support

Liz Carey, the owner of Mascot Aesthetic, another small business on Main Street, closed her doors a couple of days before the stay-at-home order was put in place. 

“We felt that it was a more responsible thing to do given the situation,” Carey said. “Never in a million years did we think it was gonna last this long.” 

Though her business is primarily service-based, she was able to put some of her retail products online when the shutdown happened. “It’s not big-ticket items, but it’s enough that it will keep my lights on, it will keep my doors open, and we will have a place to come back to work when it’s time.”

When it came time to apply for relief funding, like Kennedy, Carey applied for every one. 

“As far as the loan process went, it was confusing to say the least,” Carey said. “They use verbiage that, to me, unless you’re versed in that, you have no idea what any of it means, but I did the best I could.” 

She then reached out to her accountant for help, who assisted her in applying, and she received PPP loan funding Sunday.  

“It’s not a huge loan, but it’s enough that I can finally give my girls some money,” Carey added. “I worry about them and I want to help them. It’s been heartbreaking to not be able to do something … so it literally will give me enough money for that and probably one month of rent.”

Even so, for Carey, the support she’s received from her fellow business owners has helped carry her through it. 

“The group of business owners down here and the community is amazing,” she said. “Their support has been something that’s been very humbling and just heartfelt. So that’s me is very important.” 

Earthbaby Boutique owner Renee Kennedy in the store located on Main Street in Newhall on Thursday, May 07, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

Most challenging

Even for Jeff Novack, owner of West Coast Music Academy, who eventually was able to secure PPP funding, the process was difficult at first. 

He, too, applied for both the PPP and EIDL loans, as did many in a small business group he’s part of. 

“A lot of them really struggled to get funding,” Novack said. “It was not a very easy process.” 

He spent most of his time scouring the internet, and ended up applying at a few different banks, finally getting his PPP loan approved through CDC Small Business Finance. 

“I was lucky because I got approved during the first round, literally right before they ran out (of funds),” he said, adding that he plans to use a majority of those funds on payroll.

West Coast Music Academy was able to transition about two-thirds of its students to online, virtual classes, helping many of Novack’s employees keep their positions to some degree.

“A lot of our teachers have seen a decrease in income, not only because we’ve lost students, but because a lot of them are performing musicians that have just seen their income go away,” Novack added.

Even so, he still questions if he really knows the parameters of the loan, only finding out once approved that he had to use his allocated funds within eight weeks. “It’s very vague as to how things are going to be forgiven.”

Though Novack opened his business during the 2008 recession, he still considers his situation now the most challenging experience he’s faced. 

“It’s been a challenge, but we’ve managed,” he added. “We consider ourselves very fortunate because I know a lot of businesses that just weren’t able to survive. So, the fact that we’ve been able to shift everything online and continue that way, even though we’re not doing as well as we were a couple months ago, we’ve been very grateful to have that.” 

Filling the gap

While Lesley Visutsiri, owner of Hummingbird Lane Fabrics & Notions, doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar store, she, too, had to make changes. 

“I had to do a pivot for sure,” she said. “Everyone in the crafting (or) sewing community has shifted from making quilts to making masks, and a lot of people are making them for free or for no profit, so they’re not willing to go and spend $12 a yard on fabric. I had to go out and procure cheaper fabric that I can offer at a lower price to help the customers keep coming to me … and make it more affordable for them.” 

Visutsiri applied for both the EIDL and PPP loans, hearing nothing from either until recently.

“I got a response I think three days ago that said, ‘We got your application,’” she said, referring to the EIDL loan application she had submitted in early April. 

She was then notified that the PPP funding had run out, and her application was put on hold. When the second round of PPP was put through, she finally received her payment. 

“It wasn’t a huge amount. It was pretty minimal,” she said, adding that because she’s a sole proprietor, she’ll use it to fill the gap. 

Still, she’s nervous for her business’ future. “I’m a little nervous because people have been coming to me because Hobby Lobby and Joanne’s have been closed. Well, they’re going to open up again, I’m going to be losing customers back to those big stores. And that’s my concern.” 

Taking a toll

Though Pam Stephenson, owner of PS Apparel Design & Embroidery, is a sole proprietor like Visutsiri, she doesn’t take a salary, so wasn’t able to apply for many of the relief loans. 

“In our case, we’re probably close to a medium-sized company, but working at a small-scale type situation and because of that, not taking a salary, not having employees,” she said. “The government doesn’t really consider us needing to have that help, so it’s really tough.” 

Even so, the pandemic has still taken a toll on Stephenson’s business. 

“We are a custom printing and embroidery company, and more than 50% of our work comes from the schools,” she said. “We were not (doing) a lot of one-off (orders), although we have totally changed our business to go toward that now because there are no schools and there are no businesses (open).” 

For the first three or four weeks of the quarantine, not only did Stephenson not have work, she also spent her time trying to return canceled orders. “Full orders for hundreds of items were being canceled.” 

Still, she has kept her positive attitude, focusing instead on what her business’ new normal will look like.

“I think if we can keep that focus on the positive, then we’re all gonna come out of this in some ways, hopefully for the better,” she said.

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