Two months after it began offering grants to business owners struck by superstorm Sandy, New Jersey has provided money to eight companies, the Christie administration said Tuesday, blaming the delay on a slow-moving Congress that spent valuable time haggling over the details of federal aid.
At least two of the businesses at the Jersey Shore approved for grants said the money will help them rebuild. They noted they were denied loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, and they still are fighting their insurance companies.
“Things are very tight,” said Diana Ruggiero, 62, who owns Rossi’s Rent-A-Rama, a business in the Ortley Beach section of Toms River that rents a variety of items to tourists. She was approved for a $50,000 grant. “Every week we try to buy or replace something.”
Gov. Chris Christie is scheduled to visit Rossi’s and two other Shore-area businesses today — Eastern Lines Surf Shop in Belmar and Casa Comida in Long Branch — calling attention to the Stronger NJ Business Grant Program. The $260 million program offers businesses damaged by Sandy up to $50,000, or $250,000 for businesses with multiple locations. Unlike loans, the grants don’t have to be repaid.
In a story Sunday, the Asbury Park Press found that eight months after Sandy, only a fraction of the more than $300 million in government aid earmarked for businesses had reached its target. It has left the mom-and-pop merchants that make up the Shore’s tourism industry frustrated by the red tape and increasingly worried that they won’t be able to save the summer season.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said he expects the grant approvals to pick up momentum. “The program is ramped up and will now unfold more quickly,” he said. “It’s important to remember that, unfortunately, time was lost due to months of haggling and delay from Congress. That lost time at the front end of the aid process has now been added to the back end.
“It’s something the governor warned would happen and explains why he was so impatient and outspoken on the need for Congress to act. So, while regrettable, we are moving forward as quickly as possible to help our small businesses.”
Don Tarrant, 59, of Eastern Lines Surf Shop in Belmar, could use the help. The store that he has owned for 32 years was flooded, and it lost about $160,000 worth of inventory.
Tarrant said he was rejected for an SBA loan, and his insurance claim was denied. He reopened only after cashing in his retirement savings. He was approved by the state Economic Development Authority for a grant for $38,135.
It wasn’t easy. Planning to use the money for working capital and buy inventory, he needed to present invoices and checks in a process that left him feeling like a forensic accountant.
“I do a lot of bookkeeping anyway, so I’m used to the task,” Tarrant said. “But it definitely is time-consuming.”
Scrambling for money
The Shore’s tourism industry has scrambled to rebuild, cobbling together money from savings, insurance payments, commercial bank loans and aid from government programs.
The government programs include: SBA disaster loans that have an interest rate as low as 4 percent; EDA grants for working capital and future storm-related construction; and another EDA program that began Monday and offers low-interest loans.
The Asbury Park Press on Sunday found about 17 percent of the total loan amount approved by the SBA for businesses Monmouth and Ocean county business owners have been disbursed. The EDA declined to disclose how many grants were approved since the program began May 1.
On Tuesday, the EDA said 1,247 applications had been opened, 200 applications had been submitted and 22 grants have been approved for $1.2 million. Of those, it had disbursed a total of $247,067 to eight companies — four in Monmouth County, two in Ocean County and two in Hudson County.
The grant program is designed to make up for the gap in what business owners receive from other sources and what they need to survive. Business owners first must apply to the SBA, as long as the agency accepts applications.
After they are approved, business owners are reimbursed only after sending receipts and invoices.
The money for the program comes as part of the Community Development Block Grant program approved by Congress in January and follows rules set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Both business owners and EDA officials have said the process is cumbersome.
With little money at their disposal, Diana Ruggiero of Rossi’s said her husband, Robert, has spent his weekends repairing the building, filling a 60-foot sinkhole, and braving cold weather in a town that still is awaiting natural gas. While they lost much of their inventory — cribs, beach chairs, beach umbrellas — they salvaged enough of their bicycles to reopen.
She plans to use the grant to pay property taxes, salaries, utilities and to purchase some equipment.
“It wasn’t all that easy, but I was able to do it,” she said. “You have to have a lot of patience.”