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Seattle offers grants to help small businesses. What about Philadelphia?

By February 5, 2020No Comments

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A new grant program in Seattle is helping its “micro” small-business owners stay in business. Should Philadelphia be doing the same?

Launched late last year, Seattle’s Small Business Stabilization Pilot Program provides as much as $25,000 to its most vulnerable micro-businesses: those firms with fewer than five employees whose owners earn less than 50 percent of the area’s medium income, among other factors.

It is meant to help such businesses navigate through a “destabilizing event” such as property destruction, a loss of business due to construction, raising rents, crime, a personal emergency, or some other event that reduced business income and or risked displacement of their business. In January, the city awarded grants to eight of its local businesses.

“With this pilot program, we’re telling our small businesses that their city will support them in moments of uncertainty, and they can count on Seattle as a reliable partner and ally,” Seattle Mayor Jenny A. Durkan said in a statement. “Our small businesses are part of the fabric of our city, and they make Seattle a better, more vibrant place.”

Programs such as this are sprouting up across the country as cities such as Seattle are realizing the importance of helping the small businesses that make up its infrastructure through challenges. Does Philadelphia do the same? Actually, according to some, the city does more.

Although not specifically geared toward businesses facing displacement, Philadelphia has targeted programs for small businesses in low-income neighborhoods as well as programs specifically geared to minority-owned businesses to help them survive and hopefully thrive in areas that need them the most.

For example, the city’s InStore Forgivable Loan Program helps existing business owners expand and new businesses open on targeted commercial corridors by offering them forgivable loans of up to $50,000. There’s also the Storefront Improvement Program that offers these same business owners grant money for façade improvements.

Jeff Hornstein, the executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, a nonprofit economic research and networking organization, likes both the Storefront Improvement and InStore Forgivable Loan programs because he thinks both offer better deals to Philadelphia small-business owners than their Seattle counterparts.

“It’s more money per business, on average, than what Seattle is doing now,” he says. “The InStore program is designed to help businesses expand and help new businesses become established. The Storefront Improvement Program is nationally recognized as well.”

The City’s Water Department also has special assistance grants available for marketing, cleaning, and related activities for businesses in commercial areas that are disrupted by the department’s construction projects. Companies that face these hardships can also benefit from lower eligibility requirements for the city’s Storefront Improvement Program, according to First Deputy Commerce Director Sylvie Gallier Howard.

“We’re also pursuing other strategies to mitigate displacement, including establishing a loan fund for small businesses and community organizations that want to purchase real estate in their community,” Howard said. “As government, it’s difficult to assess when to help a business in distress, but we have programs that aim to mitigate the challenges faced by these businesses as much as possible.”

The city has also partnered with other organizations that provide assistance to small businesses in the area. For example, it helps them get access to capital by providing resources to Community Development Financial Institutions, as well running the Philadelphia Business Lending Network, which simplifies the process of applying for loans by allowing small businesses to apply to more than 40 nonprofit and for-profit lenders with one single form. The city’s Commerce Department also has a venture program in partnership with Philly Startup Leaders which offers grants for founders from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Economy League’s Hornstein also points out that other organizations in the city, such as the Welcoming Center, the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Accelerate Latinx, the Enterprise Center, Entrepreneur Works and the Women’s Opportunity Resource Center provide resources for local businesses looking for financial help and advice, regardless of their size or need. Hornstein believes that the area has a “decent toolbox” between what city government and the nonprofit sector is doing. But he’s keeping an eye on Seattle’s program — which he likes a lot — and agrees that it may be a good thing for Philadelphia, too.

“Fiscally, Philadelphia is in good shape, and there are lots of worthy programs that the city could find money to support,” he says. “If there were an evidence base for the program in Seattle, and we don’t know yet because it’s just starting, I think it could probably pass City Council. I don’t think there would be many obstacles.”

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