For nearly two decades Starnella Johnson said her business, Ambassador Floral Co., had steady customers from high school students going to prom to local churches buying flowers for funerals and weddings.
But once the COVID-19 pandemic came along, that changed everything, and now her Roseland shop is facing closure unless she can get financial help through loans or grants.
“Things don’t look good right now with sales down 50 percent,” said Johnson, owner of the flower shop at 11045 S. Halsted St. “As I sit here thinking of ways to reinvent myself to keep these doors open, things look pretty bleak.”
Last year Johnson said she missed out on proms, graduations and her biggest season, Mother’s Day.
“There are lot of churches around here and before the pandemic people would stop by before or after church service to buy flowers,” she said. “But with churches shut down I no longer have the foot traffic churches generated for me.”
Technology has been a constant barrier for many small businesses throughout Chicago, according to Karen Freeman-Wilson, president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. Recognizing this trend among small businesses Johnson said she now use Uber for deliveries.
“A lot of small businesses that sell products do not offer delivery or accept credit-card payments and that puts them at a huge disadvantage,” Johnson said. “Customers want the option to pay for their purchases online and have their products delivered.”
But even with upgrading her technology, Johnson still ended up reducing staff to four employees from 10, and the remaining employees are now part-time contractors.
“I applied but was turned down for a PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan because I no longer have staff employees, and I applied for a few grants but so far, nothing has come through,” Johnson said.
The nonprofit Far South Community Development Corp. in Roseland is helping small business owners identify and apply for grants and loans.
“We are working with small businesses to let them know about assistance available to them like the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loans offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Neighborhood Opportunity grant offered by the city of Chicago,” said Abraham Lacey, president of the organization.
And although COVID cases in Chicago have steadily dropped recently, allowing city restrictions on businesses to be eased, Lacey said the damage has already been done.
“The pandemic has further exacerbated an already troubled business sector. If you look at the Michigan Avenue Corridor (in Roseland) you will see empty stores and that number is growing as this pandemic goes on,” Lacey said. “There were several restaurants and hair salons that closed, and landlords have delayed rent for business tenants in order to keep them in their space.”
According to census data, Roseland has 41,106 residents, with 96 percent Black, 1.3 percent Hispanic; 1.2 percent white; and 0.4 Asian. The median household income is $39,304 compared with $55,198 citywide.
In 2019, Mayor Lori Lightfoot rolled out her INVEST South/West initiative aimed at jump-starting economic development in underserved neighborhoods on the South and West sides. Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th, whose ward incudes Roseland, said she is depending on the mayor to provide economic help.
“The bottom line is that this pandemic has crippled us. That’s why I am relying 100 percent on the mayor’s INVEST South/West initiative. Her commitment to invest in our wards is what I am relying on the most to get through these hard times,” Austin said. “I don’t see anything the federal or state governments are doing so I have to rely solely on our mayor.”
However, Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, who also represents Roseland, said the mayor is the last person he is depending on to help rebuild his ward.
“I have done as much as I possibly can to help my small business owners, but they need money and resources to survive. And instead of helping small businesses the mayor chose to use $281 million in COVID relief money from the federal government to pay for police overtime and that angered a lot of small business owners in my ward,” Beale said. “That’s why rather than depend on the mayor to help me I continue to build relationships with community and business leaders to uplift the local economy on the Far South Side.”
In an emailed statement, the mayor acknowledged that she did use COVID money to help pay for police overtime but said the CARES Act allowed her to do so.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has directed more money to small businesses than any other municipality in the country, with more than $100 million in loan and grants dedicated to keep our small and micro businesses afloat,” Lightfoot said in the statement. “Also, in order to fill the gaps of federal funding and reverse decades of disinvestment, the City has consistently prioritized businesses in the South and West Sides through every round of funding, including businesses in Alderman Beale’s ward.”