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Struggling against Red Tide, a Redington Beach liquor store is too small to qualify for local aid

Mark Wilson, owner of Redington Beach Liquors, pictured at his empty store on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. Wilson says business has slowed down significantly since Red Tide began to affect Pinellas beaches. (MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times)
Published Sep. 24, 2018

REDINGTON BEACH — Mark Wilson hasn't had a customer for hours.

As the only liquor store on his stretch of Pinellas County beaches, Wilson is used to a steady stream of tourists from the nearby condos and hotels.

Other beachfront businesses affected by the spread of Red Tide have started leaning on loan programs: a county bridge loan designed to tide them over until the low-interest federal disaster aid that opened last week kicks in.

But as Wilson — who estimates he is losing up to $500 a day — has learned, not every small business is treated the same.

"We don't have enough employees," he said of the 700-square-foot shop he runs with his wife. "There's no provision for mom-and-pop's. I don't understand that; we're a damn profitable business."

He's left calculating how long he can keep the doors open if customers don't start coming back.

Read more: Federal loans open to Pinellas businesses struggling against Red Tide

But with a foe as fickle as Red Tide, it's impossible for beach-side businesses to know just how long the algae bloom will continue killing fish and choking Tampa Bay's tourism industry with its wicked stench.

The bridge loans, which can provide operators thousands of needed dollars within three days, require a business have two to 200 employees. The federal loans offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) have no such restrictions, but take several weeks to come through.

SBA spokesman Jack Camp said the administration has a "goal" of 21 days to return answers on applications. Wilson said he's heard of businesses waiting more than a month for the aid to come through.

"Red Tide is wiping everybody out," he said. "This business is my livelihood."

Read more: Tampa Bay businesses feel Red Tide's sting: 'Our sales are going to be our lowest ever'

The Pinellas County Economic Development Office started offering bridge loans on Aug. 15, following an order by Gov. Rick Scott. Those loans are set between $1,000 and $50,000. They are interest-free for the first 180 days. After that, rates jump to 18 percent.

But the county's intention isn't for businesses to have those loans long term, according to business development office spokeswoman Stacey Swank. SBA, which is setting up a disaster office in Clearwater starting today will take over and refinance those loans, she said.

SBA's terms are desirable: up to $2 million, terms up to 30 years and interest rates that max out at about 3.8 percent.

"Getting businesses and communities up and running after a disaster is our highest priority at SBA," said its administrator Linda McMahon in a release.

Other solo ventures feeling the hurt: fishing boat charters. Who wants to fish among rotting grouper carcasses?

Most captains operate alone, making them unqualified for bridge loans. Even those who have deckhands, like yacht charter boat captain Steve Rayow, are unsure if their standby crews will count as employees and meet the bridge loan terms.

Rayow hasn't met with anyone from the county office or federal aid yet, but plans at the SBA office at the EpiCenter in Clearwater this week.

He's had at least six parties cancel on him since Red Tide crept into Tampa Bay waters more than two weeks ago. That's roughly $8,000 he's lost.

"There's no telling how much money we've lost having to turn people away," Rayow said. "Or how many just never called that would have."

Rayow will soon have to pay $5,000 to pull his yacht from the docks so the Coast Guard can inspect the bottom of the boat as part of an annual certification inspection.

Read more:People are building their own barriers to block Red Tide

He's already calculating the costs of possible upgrades the Coast Guard may want — money he isn't making right now.

Wilson encourages locals to come out to the suffering beach businesses — eat at Frog Pond and then see him next door for a bottle of wine.

On Monday afternoon, he was beginning to feel a cautious optimism. He still wasn't sure what to do now that he knows he can't get a bridge loan.

But the tide and winds had changed, leaving the nearby beach clear of dead fish. The stink that clung near his liquor shop had dissipated.

At least for now.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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