Nine businesses in Silver Spring and one in Bethesda have asked the county for financial assistance under a new program designed to help businesses hurt by county-initiated development.
The program was proposed this spring during the County Council's budget deliberations by Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda) and Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring). It sets aside $100,000 in economic development funds for loans and grants to small businesses hurt by county projects, such as the closure and rebuilding of a public parking garage. The program took effect July 1.
According to criteria drafted by the office of economic development, businesses with gross revenue of less than $5 million and fewer than 75 employees are eligible to apply. They can receive up to $20,000. But applicants must first open their books to county officials.
"They have to give more than anecdotal evidence, whether it's sales receipts or income statements," said Joseph Shapiro, spokesman for the office of economic development, which is administering the program. "They have to show some correlation between the start of a project and a downturn in business."
Although business owners state what they need the money for in their application, the county doesn't restrict how they can use the funds.
"We want to make the process as transparent and user-friendly as possible. We don't want to overload them with requirement on top of requirement," Perez said.
The county has received requests for 10 grants ranging from $6,000 to $60,000 for marketing, relocation and other expenses. The county has funded two grants, one for $20,000 to Moren Inc., a jewelry store in Silver Spring, the other for about $16,000 to Black's Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda, Shapiro said. The county has not made any loans.
County economic development officials are waiting for additional information from eight other applicants. Once the county receives all of the paperwork and the grant is approved, it can release funds within three weeks, Shapiro said.
"We're trying to get money in people's hands as fast as possible," Perez said.
Among the applicants are Greg Hourigan, who owns the Hard Times Cafe in Bethesda. When the county closed a nearby parking garage several years ago, his restaurant filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection so it could reorganize its finances. The parking lot reopened two years ago, and the restaurant has since emerged from bankruptcy. Hourigan said he plans to apply for a grant to help make interest payments on money the restaurant borrowed to keep afloat during the garage closure.
Bijan Rashedi, owner of Carpet Bazaar in Silver Spring, also applied for a grant. His business was hurt when a county parking garage attached to nearby City Place Mall was closed during a renovation. Rashedi recently lost his lease and said he intends to relocate his business from Colesville Road and Fenton Street, where he has been for 20 years, to another part of the county. His problems are well-known to county economic development officials. Perez and Denis held a press conference about the special fund at Rashedi's store in June.
Not all business owners who qualify for the program have embraced it. Marco Fortini, owner of DaMarco's Italia Gourmet, an Italian specialty shop on Colesville Road, said his business has fallen 30 percent since several chain restaurants, such as Macaroni Grill and Chipotle, opened over the summer a few blocks east on Ellsworth Avenue. The new eateries are part of the Foulger-Pratt Co.'s development called Downtown Silver Spring and the renovation of City Place Mall. Like Rashedi, he also lost customers, he said, when the county parking garage attached to City Place was closed.
County officials told Fortini about the financial assistance program months ago, but he didn't apply. "What is $5,000 to $10,000 if you're going to lose your business? The grant was worthless. . . . They're not constructing this side of Colesville. They've put all the money out there," Fortini said, referring to the new development. "They've directed traffic back there. They don't care about small businesses."
Ali Rostas, owner of Rostas Collections, a dress shop on Colesville Road, closed another clothing store a block away on Fenton Street this year. He said he didn't apply for a grant either. "I didn't have time," he said.
He has been trying to renew his Colesville Road lease for several months but has not heard from his landlord about whether he will be able to stay. "I think they're waiting to see what is going to happen with this area," he said.
When Perez and Denis proposed the fund, some business owners had concerns that $100,000 would not be enough to meet the demand. The program will only last as long funds are available, Shapiro said. If the county fulfills all 10 requests, it could very soon be out of funds.
Then it will be up to the County Council to decide whether to increase funding for next year, Shapiro said.