Here’s the dark side of the much heralded Jersey Shore recovery from superstorm Sandy: just a fraction of the millions of aid dollars earmarked for small businesses has been sent to merchants hurt by the storm.
A number of Shore business owners say they fear that the delays from bureaucratic red tape and odd requirements — including one that forces recipients who receive a grant from one program to stop reconstruction until they obtain federal approval — will cost them the chance to salvage the 10 weeks remaining in the summer tourism season.
The U.S. Small Business Administration has disbursed 17 percent, or $11.5 million, of the $67.3 million in disaster loans it has approved for businesses in Monmouth and Ocean counties, an Asbury Park Press investigation found. And the state Economic Development Authority — which launched a $260 million grant program May 1 — isn’t saying if any money has been given out yet.
“I’m all for helping people in need anywhere in the world. That makes sense to us as a country,” said Paul Kelly, owner of Kelly’s Sea Bay Sunoco in Lavallette, who thought he was close to receiving a response from the EDA on his grant application, only to be told last week it needed more documents from him. “It’s time to help ourselves. That’s what this money was approved for.”
The $25 million dollar “Stronger than the Storm” marketing campaign and the high-profile boardwalk visits from Gov. Chris Christie and President Barack Obama get a lot of optimistic attention, but the mom-and-pop business owners who make up the Shore’s tourism industry paint a picture of a frustrating recovery.
While they await government aid to help them rebuild, replenish their inventory, or pay their vendors, the summer tourism season has arrived. Government officials say the intense scrutiny is needed to ensure taxpayer money isn’t wasted. But business is off from last year in the areas hit hardest by Sandy, many owners say. And they are being warned that the Shore’s economic recovery isn’t going to happen this year.
“Very honestly, most of the state does not understand the recovery hasn’t happened yet,” state Sen. Robert Singer, R-Ocean, told business owners at a recent seminar in Lakewood. “We’re looking at a three- to seven-year recovery, and anybody who thinks different really hasn’t taken a look at that.”
Business aid slow to arrive
The slow pace of the business aid programs stands in contrast to money that — after political wrangling in Congress — has flooded into the Shore. In recent months, New Jersey’s congressmen have announced a flurry of grants, including: $42.4 million to repair and rebuild New Jersey parks; $35 million to repair Sandy Hook; and $25.6 million to replenish beaches in Sea Bright and Monmouth Beach.
They have announced grants for $14 million to help Atlantic Highlands repair its marina; a total of $10 million to Seaside Heights and Spring Lake to repair their boardwalks; and $6.4 million to Middletown for Sandy debris cleanup.
Business owners haven’t been as lucky.
After Sandy struck Oct. 29, many of the Shore’s tourism business owners consoled themselves with the bright side: the summer was still months away, leaving them plenty of time to rebuild. But the small business owners that make up the Shore’s tourism industry said this summer, as every year, snuck up on them quickly.
To help, both the federal and state governments have offered assistance. The U.S. Small Business Administration quickly rolled out its disaster relief program, which includes loans with interest rates as low as 4 percent, to businesses that need money to help repair physical damage, replace equipment or inventory and make up for lost sales.
New Jersey on May 1 launched the Stronger NJ Business Grant Program, providing business owners who sustained at least $5,000 in damage from Sandy grants of up to $50,000 — or up to $250,000 for businesses with multiple locations — to use for working capital and future storm-related construction. Unlike loans, the grants don’t have to be repaid.
Billed as a last resort, the grants are designed to make up for the gap in what business owners are eligible for from the SBA and what they need to stay afloat. They first need to apply for the SBA program, at least as long as the SBA continues to accept applications.
Eight months after Sandy, however, the aid for small businesses has only trickled in, particularly in Monmouth and Ocean counties.
The SBA has approved $67.3 million in disaster loans for Monmouth and Ocean county businesses, but disbursed $11.5 million. By comparison, the SBA has disbursed more than 25 percent of the loans it approved for a region that includes 22 counties in New Jersey and New York.
New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority has set aside $260 million for the grant program. Officials declined to say how many grants have been distributed. The Asbury Park Press filed an open records request seeking the informationbut had not received a response by publication time.
Gov. Christie’s office didn’t return a call last week for comment.
“We have an increasingly robust pipeline of applications that are actively being processed,” said Linda Kellner, director of the EDA’s Office of Recovery.
Owing everybody money
Sandy demolished much of the coastline from Union Beach to Long Beach Island, adding a giant weight to a group of business owners who already feel the pressure to earn enough money between Memorial Day and Labor Day to survive.