Crookston business leaders say they’re able to seek financial help with relative ease, but they’re still waiting for word on if they’re approved, and they still have plenty of questions

    The reviews are in, at least among the Crookston business owners and managers who responded to a Times’ callout on social media, and for the most part local business leaders are pleased with the financial relief options being made available to them during the COVID-19 pandemic and applying for funding is pretty easy. But there is still plenty of unease. For one thing, everyone who has applied doesn’t know yet if they’ll get any relief, and there are a multitude of questions going forward and concerns about the processes and programs and how they apply to each businesses’ individual situations.

    For the most part, local businesses are seeking help through the new Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), sponsored by the federal Small Business Administration. It’s based on low-interest loans being given to businesses, through local lenders, and given that the last thing many struggling small businesses want to do is take on more debt, there is a component of PPP that makes the loans forgivable if certain criteria are met.

    Jake Fee, secretary of the Crookston Eagles, says he’s a fan of the program, which provides funding to cover payroll plus some dollars for expenses like utilities. Fee said Crookston banks have been great to work with. But he echoes other business representatives who are seeing PPP dollars as critical to weather the current storm, but say if the state’s stay-at-home order is extended beyond May 4 and bars and restaurants have to remain closed, a whole new, more severe storm will be coming.

    “If this goes past May 4, then (Gov. Tim Walz) better have a plan to also provide support to small businesses or some won’t reopen,” Fee said.

    Stephanie Overgaard applied for PPP funds for a local church and agreed with Fee that doing so was quick and easy. She, too, is still waiting for word on her application.

    Nicole Wandrie represents the smallest of small businesses. She’s the owner and only employee of Joyful Heart Photography in downtown Crookston. Given the small scope of her operation, Wandrie says her options are fairly limited; she’s seeking relief through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program.

    Her rent is her largest expense, she notes, which is not eligible for PPP funding. If Wandrie could get enough money to cover a couple months of rent, she said she’d be satisfied. But, she adds, she thinks the response rate was underestimated by the powers-that-be. She said she was told she’d get word on her application within three days; she applied 11 days ago and has yet to hear word.

    Meantime, Wandrie says the Professional Photographers Association of America has been “amazing to work with” and has kept her constantly informed and updated.

    If she’s not allowed to reopen anytime soon, Wandrie, who’s been in business for 13 years, figures she’ll have to apply for some kind of loan.

    “It's been tough. I'm still exploring options of products and different items I can offer my existing clients, as well as reminding people that I do sell gift certificates and those can be used at any time,” Wandrie says. “So I'm hopeful to get a little bit of cash flow to help cover my rent and utilities, as well as to put groceries on my table.

    “I think the worst part is turning clients away. Some things can be rescheduled, but some things, such as newborn sessions, can't be,” she continued. “You can't turn the clock back and make your child a newborn again.”

    Brandon Buckalew of Crookston Hardware Hank is feeling stressed for multiple reasons, but mostly because he feels so many questions that could have been answered in the 800-page, $2.2 trillion federal relief bill were not, leaving businesses owners and managers scrambling to find answers, while also making sure they don’t “do anything wrong” in regard to following the appropriate processes and procedures.

    “I’ve had people from every financial institution, accounting practice, and other associations reach out to me with the same two pages of who will qualify,” Buckalew reports. “Every time I tell them I have questions on how to distribute the money, they refer me to someone else that gives me the same info.”

    He then proceeded to ask around 20 questions in rapid-fire fashion, all relating to the status of Hardware Hank and its employees and how various scenarios will or won’t impact the business’ pursuit of financial relief. Buckalew says he has around a “million more” questions beyond his first 20.

    “It is a lot on scenarios. A good handful have happened to me and a few of them have happened to other businesses I know about,” he explains. “That’s the hard part; all of these situations should be covered in the 800-page bill that was passed.

    “I just don’t want to do the wrong thing and get into trouble. I just worry since so much can happen in a day,” Buckalew adds. “We’re lucky to not have many sick people around here. But in other areas a lot changes hour to hour.”

    Crookston developer Jeff Evers is a small business owner, too. So far, he says he’s been “lucky enough” to not have to pursue financial relief. More than anything right now, he’s interested in the Crookston business community surviving the pandemic as best as it can. Offering counsel to small business owners stressed to the max and wondering how all of these relief efforts work, Evers says, “If you are hurting, take the help and don’t overthink it.”

Local resources

    CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth tells the Times that many local businesses have reached out to him seeking guidance and advice. He says it’s slowed some as they’ve gotten more “clarity” on how to request needed dollars, but his primary advice continues to be to reach out to their local primary lender. He’s also a fan of the EIDL that Wandrie applied for.

    Hoiseth is concerned about any financial relief being called a “loan.” The last thing any business wants to do right now is add more debt to their balance sheet. “Even if it is the Minnesota Small Business Emergency Loan Program where a business can get $35,00 with zero percent interest, that debt is still there on the other side of this pandemic and needs to be serviced,” he explains. “While there is an opportunity for some of this loan to be forgiven, it has not been made certain.”

    As for CHEDA loans to businesses, Hoiseth said CHEDA is giving businesses the option of suspending payments for at least three months.

    Hoiseth adds that anyone needing advice on how to navigate the options available to them is welcome to call him at 218 470-2000.

    Terri Heggie, executive director at the Crookston Chamber & Visitors Bureau, and Michelle Christopherson, director of outreach and engagement at the University of Minnesota Crookston, made similar offers to help, or at least are pointing the business community toward resources they provide and/or work with. Heggie says visitcrookston.com has links to many resources, and Christopherson says the Northwest Small Business Development Center in Crookston has resources and expertise and is able to provide counsel as well. Learn more at nwsbdc.org.