Ground Zero: The State of Small Business

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Joe Caccesse, a loan officer for the Small Business Administration, hasgotten used to mass disasters. He started out with the SBA in Northridge,California, rushing through emergency loans for businesses destroyed in thearea's powerful 1994 earthquake. He's been dispatched to Illinois, WestVirginia, and Massachusetts to help small businesses recover from massiveflooding. Yet his latest assignment--at a makeshift emergency center inmidtown Manhattan--is unlike anything Caccesse has dealt with before.

Nearly a month after the World Trade Center attack, the wreckage at GroundZero was still smoldering. And small businesses in the neighborhood andthroughout the New York City area were still trying to calculate the damage.

In all, more than 14, 000 businesses in lower Manhattan--includingrestaurants, clothing stores, consulting shops--were destroyed, damaged orsignificantly disrupted as a result of the September 11 attacks, accordingto Jim King, director of the New York State Small Business DevelopmentCenters.

And as many as 40,000 more businesses are estimated to have sufferedindirect losses as the aftershocks have hit the local economy. For now, NewYork officials are reluctant to put a cost estimate on the total damage. "Fromour standpoint, it's too early to accurately say," says Michael Marr, aspokesperson for New York state's business development agency, the EmpireState Development Corp. But the costs--in lost inventory, lost customers,lost revenues--will clearly run in the hundreds of millions.

In the weeks since the attack, federal, state, city, and local businessgroups have stepped in to offer all kinds of emergency aid to New York City-area business owners. The Empire State Development Corp recently opened a converted130,000-square-feet Lockheed Martin plant in Yonkers to provide temporaryworkspace to lower Manhattan businesses. The New York City baris offering small business owners free legal assistance. Another group, AssistNYC.org, a consortium ofcomputer and business consultants, banks, manufacturers, and realtors, isoffering businesses 90-day month deferred- payment leasing of offices andoffice equipment.

For now, though, the primary source of long-term financial help forstruggling businesses are emergency loans offered through the SBA. As ofOctober 11, SBA had a total of 92 loan officers and staffers operating infour emergency centers in Manhattan. Four weeks after the attack SBA loanofficer Caccesse says a steady stream of 50 to 60 business owners or theirrepresentatives are still making their way to SBA's office in midtown everyday. And many are still shaken up. "Some people break down andcry--they hold your hand," he says.

Businesses can apply for two types of loans: a physical disaster loan to replace or repair damage to real estate, inventory, equipment, and supplies;or an economic injury loan, which offers working capital to help businessesthrough the recovery. Interest rates start at 4 percent, and can go up to 8percent if business have access to other credit, with a maximum repaymentperiod of 30 years.

As of Oct 11, the SBA had approved 263 loans for businesses totaling over$26 million, according to SBA spokesman Carl Gaspari. He says the agencyis currently reviewing another 1100 business loan applications, and has sent outan additional 12,000 loan applications. (Businesses seeking SBA money canalso apply for bridge loans through the Empire State Development Corp. tomeet expenses until their SBA loans come through.)

Gaspari says the agency is doing it all it can to expedite the process, andindeed many business owners say they've been pleasantly surprised by SBA'squick handling of their applications. "They were the most efficient, mosthumane organization I've ever dealt with," says Marvin Rafeld, owner of 14Wall Street Jewelers, a jewelry store just a few blocks away from the World TradeCenter. He says the SBA okayed his loan request for nearly $125,000 lessthan 24 hours after he applied.

"They were extremely efficient," agrees Robert Olman, CEO of COR Management Services,a 15-employee IT consulting business. While COR's offices are far uptown fromthe World Trade Center, Olman says virtually all of his clients are in thefinancial services industry, with most located in the attack zone. And hisconsulting business has essentially ground to a halt. "Our gross sales for thepast month are 1/200th of the average monthly sales for the past two years,"he says. "Basically we got in enough money to pay our water bills." He sayshis SBA loan (which he describes as well into the six figures) will allowhim to meet payroll, and other expenses until business picks up.

Still Olman and other business owners note that the SBA is not givingManhattan business owners any major breaks. Businesses seeking economicinjury loans of more than $5000 are required to put up their homes and anyother real estate they own as collateral. Those who don't own real estateare asked to put up inventory, equipment, receivables, and other businessassets, and all applicants should expect to supply federal tax returns,business financial statements, and a detailed credit history.

"We needto see if they can afford another debt right now, " says Caccesse. "We lookat financial records, past sales, what monthly debts are to make surethere's going to be enough left over." Both Rafeld and Olman have soundcredit histories, and both were able to put up homes as collateral, whichmay explain why their loans were approved so fast. But both say they'renervous about putting such vital personal assets at risk. "A loan where Ihave to put up my family's house sucks," says Olman.

Still not every business owner who needs help owns real estate and indeed,for them, getting a loan approved is a tougher proposition. To date, SBA hasrejected 253 loan applications from Manhattan-area business owners, accordingto Gaspari. He adds, however, that businesses who have been turned down havesix months to ask the agency to reconsider.

Steven Miyao, CEO of Kasina, a 10-employee Internet consulting business,says he applied for an SBA loan the Sunday after the September 11 attack. Asof October 5, the agency still hadn't approved his application. "We reallydon't have any physical assets," says Miyao, who notes that he's also not ahomeowner. Madelyn Wils, who chairs Community Board One in lower Manhattan, contends thatmany small businesses in the area face the same predicament. They've alreadyborrowed to start their businesses, and don't have the assets to put up tosecure SBA loans. "They're pretty well collateralized out," she says. Sheargues that the federal and state government need to offer more than loansto keep those businesses afloat. And she plans to push for a grant programfor small businesses as soon as the New York state Legislature reconvenes inmid-October. Without that extra help, she predicts that a "a lot of peopleare going to go out of business."

Rafeld, owner of 14 Wall Street Jewelers, says he's also been lobbying NewYork senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton for a grant program forbusiness. Without it, he too predicts that many Manhattan businesses won'tsurvive, and within six months lower Manhattan will be a "ghost town." "A lot of people are losing hope and patience," he says. "If they can give$300 million to Afghan refugees, I think they can afford to help us."

Susan Hansen is a senior editor atInc magazine.

Last updated: Oct 8, 2001




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