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Thousands of Florida businesses didn’t get emergency loans. But some got several.

Just three percent of applicants were approved for the state’s emergency small business loans.

Florida distributed its first round of emergency funds to small businesses across the state this month, awarding about 1,000 loans to provide relief from the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 38,000 applied.

Kelly Lessem, owner of Squeeze Juice Works, which has two St. Petersburg locations, was among the vast majority whose application was not approved.

“Right now I’m spending all my energy on not thinking about going out of business,” Lessem said.

While less than 3 percent of applicants received a piece of that fund, 21 percent of the total $49 million went to business owners who received more than one loan, often for different locations of a business. One received 10 loans totaling $500,000.

The loans from the “Florida Small Business Bridge Program” are meant to temporarily cushion the financial burden businesses are experiencing from the pandemic until more substantial funding, often from the federal government, kicks in. They are typically issued by the state after hurricanes.

This round of loans, ranging from $9,000 to $100,000, came with no interest and a one-year payback period. As of April 15, the most recent data available, 944 loans were distributed.

“It was really intended to be a business saving, jobs saving program,” said Michael Myhre, CEO of Florida’s Small Business Development Center Network. His organization receives the applications for the program and works with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to administer it.

While the loans don’t have rigid parameters for what they can be used for, Myhre said he expected them to go toward sustaining payroll and fixed operating costs such as utilities and leases.

Orange County received the largest number of small business loans (93) totaling $5,225,500, followed by Miami-Dade County (88 loans totaling $3,815,000). Leon County, which has a relatively smaller population than the state’s economic hub, pulled in $4,110,000 across 69 loans.

Tampa Bay accounted for 65 of the bridge loans. Hillsborough County received 32 loans ($1,915,000), followed by Pinellas with 23 loans ($1,044,000), Pasco with 6 loans ($395,000) and Hernando County with 4 loans ($175,000).

The Tampa Bay Times could not determine the location of 19 loan recipients’ businesses.

Those owners given multiple loans most often had two loans. Each business that files a separate federal tax return can be eligible for funding, so multiple franchises could qualify. The funding was given out on a first-come, first-serve basis instead of based on a company’s need, said Myhre, who added that’s how the program has historically worked.

This resulted in one business owner, former National Football League linebacker Angelo Crowell, receiving 10 loans totaling $500,000 for various Jersey Mike’s Subs locations. Crowell could not be reached for comment.

For small business owners like Lessem, the failure to secure a loan is compounded by unsuccessful attempts to secure federal help under several different programs and an inability to receive a check from Florida’s malfunctioning unemployment system.

Sen. Janet Cruz, a Democrat from Tampa, said it’s “wholly unfair” that some applicants get multiple loans while others don’t get any.

She sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis Monday over the duplicate recipients, saying that “it is unfathomable that numerous individuals have been able to claim in excess of $400,000 for their various businesses while an overwhelming majority of applicants receive $0.”

Cruz asked DeSantis to double the state’s $50 million to fund more loans, and asked the process be changed so that no one can receive multiple until others have their applications considered.

Experts say the program’s structure is inequitable and comes with several pitfalls. Adriana Kugler, professor of public policy and economics at Georgetown University, said that by concentrating a portion of the money into a few hands, the state risks losing that money if the businesses go under. And if a business owner has several locations of a business, they may have better access to other sources of funding than a smaller shop.

“For a proprietor of a single establishment, that (loan) may be make-or-break,” she said.

Part of the problem this round was volume. According to Myhre, Hurricane Irma in 2017 brought the previous record for most emergency small business loan applications — 2,500. Just under 900 were approved, totaling $35 million. The state, he said, didn’t anticipate the actual level of need.

Another issue was the method by which applications were accepted. Businesses could send in an application by methods such as courier, fax and email, but an online portal that the state created a few days into the application period also allowed online delivery. The applications that weren’t sent electronically had to be entered by hand, pushing back a business’ place in line, Myhre said.

Even though she lost out on the loan, Lessem said she understands why the process is based mostly on the timing of one’s application. Evaluating all 38,000 based on need could delay the funding by creating an even bigger bureaucratic backlog, she said.

A Squeeze Juice Works delivery truck is idle on a Wednesday afternoon in St. Petersburg. The business was shout out of the state's small business bridge loan process even though owner, Kelly Lessem applied for the funding. [Boyzell Hosey ]

One thing Lessem said she’s learned is not to wait for government help to arrive. She is using her personal savings to buy produce and plans to start cold pressing juice again to make contactless deliveries.

“Right before this happened I was at this point where we were hitting our stride, we were set for growth and planning expansion and now we’re just totally rethinking all those directions,” she said. “I have no doubt in my mind we’re going to come out stronger.”

Staff writers Connie Humburg, Steve Contorno, Allison Ross and Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.

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