More than double the expected number of small business owners applied for City of San Antonio grants to offset revenue losses they have suffered during ongoing street repairs.

The city and small business lender LiftFund began notifying those business owners on March 17 whether or not their application was approved, and how much of the $3 million pie they will get. 

Though a representative from LiftFund said some applicants have been notified already, and also funded, it appears others are still waiting to hear.

“This is a pretty typical timeline for other programs that we’ve run in the past,” said Lilian Spenle, grant programs and operations manager at LiftFund. “The review process that we do is very thorough.”

In January, the City Council approved a grant program to help business owners affected by what City Manager Erik Walsh called a “one-two punch” of the pandemic and simultaneous bond-related road projects. 

The COVID/Construction Recovery Grants Program was funded with $2.25 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Some additional funds were added later, Spenle said. 

At the time, city staff had estimated the program could provide grants to 60 to 80 businesses with storefront operations in 15 designated areas throughout the city.  

Applicants were required to demonstrate net revenue losses in 2022 compared to the previous year.

When the application process closed on Feb. 28, the number of applications totaled 218. 

Due to the number of applicants, how far the pot of money will go has not been determined. “There’s always going to be more need and demand out there than there are available funds,” Spenle said. Running out of money before everyone is awarded a grant “is a possibility,” she added. 

Award notifications will continue through June 2, according to a memo that Brenda Hicks-Sorensen, director of the economic development department, sent to the mayor, city manager and City Council on March 21. Applicants who scored the highest according to the methodology outlined by the city are being contacted first. 

Hard-hit St. Mary’s Strip

The greatest number of applications came from the North St. Mary’s Strip, where bar owners and others have lodged complaints for months about construction impacting their business.

Most have not yet been notified that they will receive a grant, said Aaron Peña, who co-owns The Squeezebox at 2806 N. St. Mary’s St. and keeps in close contact with the dozen “sister bars” on the Strip.

Aaron Peña is the owner of The Squeezebox located on North St. Mary’s Street.
Aaron Peña is the owner of The Squeezebox located on North St. Mary’s Street. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Malcolm Hartman, co-owner of the Tycoon Flats restaurant, is also waiting to hear whether his application will be approved. The fact that he had to show a reduction of only $10,000 in sales between 2021 and 2022 gives Hartman hope that he will. 

“We were down $10,000 every week and have been for two years,” he said. “So I said we appreciate it. [But] we need about 18 times that much in order to come close to assuaging what we’ve done.”

On March 25, the restaurant also had to contend with a major water main break due to aging infrastructure. The challenges facing the hospitality industry seem never-ending and have cost him a great deal, he said.

“The amount of money that we have borrowed to stay in business is more money than I could have ever thought that I’d ever borrow in my entire lifetime combined,” said Hartman.

A look at the applicants

“I’m glad that we’re beginning to notify businesses and distribute funds,” said District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo. 

But the city could do a better job of managing expectations, he added, about when businesses will be notified and how long it might take. “It might be two months after that process begins before you’re notified.”

Grant funding of between $10,000 and $35,000 per applicant will be disbursed after applicants complete awardee agreements and return the paperwork to LiftFund.

Nearly 90% of the applications were from retail, service or accommodation and food service businesses, stated the city memo. 

A total of 58 applications were submitted by business owners on Commerce Street in the areas of Frio to Santa Rosa streets and South St. Mary’s to Santa Rosa streets.  

Another 28 came from North New Braunfels Avenue — East Houston Street to Burleson Street — and 23 from the Broadway Street corridor stretching from Interstate Highway 35 to East Houston Street.

There were no applications from owners in the corridors of San Saba Street (Nueva to Martin streets) and Santa Rosa Street (César E. Chávez Boulevard to Martin Street), where the limited number of businesses in the area have very little foot traffic. 

Twenty applications originated from owners in the Highway 90 corridor and 17 from West Commerce Street.

Bo Lim, co-owner of the Golden Star Cafe at 821 W. Commerce St., said she did not apply for the construction recovery grant after being told she might not qualify.

But she finds comfort in knowing that, while she has lost a significant sum of money due to the road closures that made her customers think the restaurant was closed for a time, the city is making changes in how it supports affected businesses in the future. 

“At least positive changes are coming out of the fiasco of what they did in the past,” Lim said. “I’m just glad somebody is getting something from somewhere.”

Nearly 1,800 business names appear on a list of recipients from previous grant programs related to pandemic recovery, with some receiving multiple awards. 

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.