Business advisors at the University of Texas at San Antonio are aiming to prevent the unprecedented number of “sorry, we’re closed” signs on local business doors from becoming a permanent fixture across the city.

The University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute for Economic Development has established a business accelerator program to help reboot small businesses impacted by the pandemic.

The COVID-19 Business Recovery Accelerator (COBRA) will provide small businesses with no-cost counseling in finance, human resources, operations, marketing, and planning, and will also be focused on helping businesses pursue emergency funding and business loans. It will also assess loan applications that were denied and help business owners reapply.

Funded by a $1.2 million grant from the Small Business Administration (SBA), the accelerator will serve business owners in Bexar County and 10 surrounding counties.

“UTSA is committed to leveraging its knowledge enterprise to support the community in this time of need,” said UTSA President Taylor Eighmy. “I can think of no better way to do that than to pave the way for small businesses to get emergency financial relief.”

In Bexar County, there are more than 141,000 self-employed business owners and over 36,000 small businesses with employees. The UTSA program was assisting 50 small businesses weekly, mostly those with far fewer than the 500 employee-count that the SBA defines as a small business.

Hayward and Shannon Gaude, owners of Hayward Gaude Fine Portraits, have been working with counselors at UTSA’s Small Business Development Center since 2013, a year after they both quit full-time corporate jobs and opened a studio at the Alley on Bitters to focus on their photography business. The center provided resources and connections that helped them run the business, and training and marketing help to build it.

“We’ve never had a down year until the great pandemic – we’ve shown growth every year,” Hayward said. “This year was probably going to be our biggest move up.”

While business has slowed and the Gaudes have put off plans to debut an oil painting product, they are counting on scheduled studio appointments in May and, until then, offering special pricing for first responders and new graduates. “If we can hang around long enough to get the doggone thing started back up … there’s a huge appetite out there for this,” Hayward said.

Nationwide, small businesses employ nearly half of all U.S. workers. Though an essential part of the nation’s economy, they often lack the financial foundation to withstand the kind of storm wrought by a pandemic.

Sixty percent of small business owners responding to a recent Harvard Business Review survey said they expect to be able to reopen their shuttered enterprises by the end of 2020.

The other 40 percent view it as somewhat or not at all likely they will open their doors again before the end of the year.

“In the absence of a vaccine or proven treatment for COVID-19 along with the uncertainty of the length of public health measures such as shelter-in-place, the San Antonio area business and economic environment will continue to face significant hardship,” said Rod McSherry, UTSA associate vice president for innovation and economic development.

“Now is the time to support small businesses and not only see them through to recovery but also increase their resilience for the long-term.”

In an effort to strengthen the South Texas economy as a whole, the accelerator will work with small businesses to help them become more competitive through importing and exporting, contracting, market research, technology commercialization, and emergency preparedness.

UTSA is partnering with the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, the San Antonio District SBA Office, minority business organizations, and chambers of commerce to provide support to affected businesses.

To learn more and enroll with the accelerator, business owners can call 210-458-2272 or send an email to Assistance will be provided in English or Spanish.

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Shari Biediger

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