Grant recipients say city money provided needed COVID-19 lifeline

William Arsn

Sheila Lyon isn’t sure how her longstanding Pike Place Market magic store would have gotten through the past few months without a $10,000 grant from the city of Seattle.

Lyon and her husband, Darryl Beckmann, have run the Market Magic & Novelty Shop since 1973, but were forced to shut down during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, that didn’t stop their bills from pouring in.

“That $10,000 was a godsend,’’ Lyon said of the Small Business Stabilization Fund money she received in April. “It helped us get caught up on everything – rent, payroll, bills. Darryl and I still don’t take any money because we’re trying to get the business back up.’’

They at least have a fighting chance, which was the short-term goal of the grants. They were overseen by Seattle’s Office of Economic Development (OED), which required that, to be eligible, businesses have a physical establishment, five or fewer employees and an owner with an income at or below 80{5667a53774e7bc9e4190cccc01624aae270829869c681dac1da167613dca7d05} of the area’s median. 

A total of 469 businesses received just under $5 million in funding in three assistance rounds drawn by lottery after nearly 9,000 applied. OED has prioritized businesses in parts of the city at high-displacement risk, with 21{5667a53774e7bc9e4190cccc01624aae270829869c681dac1da167613dca7d05} of grants going to businesses with Black owners.

Portrait photographer Erica Daniels is one such business owner, and said the grant was the only thing keeping her Emazing Photography studio in Pioneer Square afloat.

“I was very shocked that I even got the grant because I’d heard that 9,000 people applied,’’ said Daniels, 34, who opened her business in 2013. “So, when I realized I was one of them, I was just overly thankful and super happy about it, honestly.’’

The money enabled her to keep paying her two employees until she reopened in June. “I wasn’t able to do photo shoots or meet with potential clients,’’ she said. “I thought about doing it virtually, but I like to meet my clients face-to-face.’’

She is also a single mother, raising a daughter, Emiyah, 11. “I was just scared, because you also have home bills and other responsibilities,” Daniels said. “It was really a shock to know the government can just tell you you’re unable to make any income for yourself.’’

But now, she said, business has picked back up and almost seems normal again as clients take advantage of the summer weather to order portrait shots.

Emazing Photography studio owner Erica Daniels says the $10,000 business stabilization grant she received from the city of Seattle was desperately needed to keep her company going while it was shuttered during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tasia Glover / Courtesy of Erica Daniels)
Emazing Photography studio owner Erica Daniels says the $10,000 business stabilization grant she received from the city of Seattle was desperately needed to keep her company going while it was shuttered during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tasia Glover / Courtesy of Erica Daniels)

Not all businesses have similarly recovered, though, especially restaurants, where a sizeable portion of the grant money was allocated. Jose Perez, owner of Villa Escondida in Belltown, estimates his clientele is only about 20{5667a53774e7bc9e4190cccc01624aae270829869c681dac1da167613dca7d05} of what it was pre-pandemic. 

Perez said his stabilization grant enabled him to keep his Mexican restaurant open throughout the pandemic, albeit at greatly reduced capacity inside and with more takeaway options. His staff has been reduced from four employees to three.

“It makes a difference, but it doesn’t really make a huge difference — I’m not going to lie,’’ Perez said of the grant. “It does help a little bit, but other than that, things are still the same. Nothing has really changed — $10,000 makes a difference, but honestly that’s how much I pay for rent per month.’’

Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Seattle City Council have feuded over how much of the city’s reserve funds should cover coronavirus relief efforts. While small business relief accounts for only about $5 million of $233 million invested by the city thus far, there’s been heated debate over short and long-term goals.

Durkan last month vetoed the council’s plan to spend $86 million in city reserve funds to cover COVID-19 relief programs – including the stabilization grants. “It is irresponsible to spend the entirety of our rainy day and emergency funds in the first few months of what is likely a multi-year crisis,” Durkan said.

The council later overturned the veto, but scaled back its plans and authorized only $57 million in reserve spending. The city had $128 million in reserve funds when the pandemic hit. 

Durkan still wasn’t thrilled about the lower amount.

“While Council now acknowledges their original spending was unsustainable … I continue to have concerns,” she said in a release. “I believe the City must be honest, transparent and realistic about who we can help and how we actually get money in people’s pockets.”

Indeed, the experiences of those receiving stabilization grants seems to suggest many businesses will need additional help.

Tom Dang, 50, said his $10,000 covered monthly rent payments and serviced a credit line affiliated with his International Model Toys store after it shuttered temporarily in March. But although he reopened the International District store in July, business is less than half what it was and he’s still paying monthly rent of nearly $2,000 on about 400 square feet of space.

“It was $500 a month when I first came here and now it’s $2,000,’’ he said of increases the past 20 years, adding that the business slowdown means he can no longer afford to hire anyone to help run the shop. “It’s very different. And now with the pandemic and all of the crazy things going on, I’m still surviving and I’m trying very hard. But I’ve got to pace myself.’’

Dang said he’d like the city to do more to pressure landlords about easing rent during the pandemic “so that small business owners like myself can survive.’’ He’s tried speaking to the landlord directly about lowering rent, but has yet to receive a definitive answer. 

In the meantime, he keeps showing up to the store by himself and hoping his customers return.

“It’s slowly picking up,’’ he said. “I’m actually doing a little bit better on the weekends, but during the week is still pretty slow.’’

Things aren’t much better at the magic store in Pike Place Market. 

“We’re managing right now, but barely,’’ Lyon said, adding that beyond the $10,000 grant, she’d also received a $1,500 federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and a $7,000 grant from the Pike Place Market’s Market Foundation program. 

The store has introduced new marketing initiatives on Instagram and will be starting an online newsletter Monday to drum up business for its stock of magic-related prank and joke items. Longtime store manager Geoff Ramler, 32, also a professional magician, said clientele is slowly returning, but “It is not even comparable to prior years.

“In the summertime, we’d make four or five times what we did in the winter,’’ he said. “And now, we’re making wintertime money.’’

He said the shoppers of pre-pandemic times – mostly tourists – who’d come in to randomly browse the store are no longer there, and there’s no predictable pattern to when any customers turn up. Those coming in, he said, usually know exactly what they want, pay for it and leave quickly. 

Still, the city’s grant secured Ramler one consistency – his continued employment. That hasn’t been the case with his magician side career.

“I used to do private parties and corporate events,’’ he said. “But now, that’s pretty much dried up because of the pandemic. So, I’m glad to still have this.’’

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