As local hospitals found themselves consumed in responding to COVID-19 last spring, elective surgeries were suspended, and administrators scrambled to adapt budgets to their new day-to-day reality. The ripple-out effect was felt in North Denver at Bear Gutierrez Photography. Gutierrez’ health care clients—a large share of his business—cut marketing budgets, putting projects (and much of Gutierrez’ income) on hold.
Small business relief funding from the city came at a crucial time for Gutierrez and over 200 North Denver businesses. It afforded them breathing room while they figured out what to do next.
The city’s small business emergency support fund distributed $10.45 million to 1,796 businesses with 25 and fewer employees between May and December 2020, including over $1 million to businesses in North Denver. And the city is poised to distribute more.
COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions on large gatherings slashed the Frank’s Bar-B-Que catering business as events—from weddings and graduation parties to business events—began to be cancelled, one by one, throughout the spring. Frank Volkmer, Jr., wasn’t obligated to return deposits, but he wanted customers to feel good about coming back to his business when they’re able, so he took the hit from losing both the deposits and the catering jobs.
Volkmer used city funding to update the front of Frank’s Bar-B-Que’s building on West Colfax Avenue. He wanted the new look out front to send a message that they’re open for business, now take-out and dine-in business. Previously abundant catering contracts are secondary for now. Plates and sandwiches keep them going at this point.
Frank’s has been a family business serving Texas style bar-b-que since 1969. Frank, Sr., moved the family and business from Texas to Colorado in 1980 and eventually opened additional restaurant locations. But large event catering turned out to be the best fit for Frank’s, so they eventually focused there. Until 2020.
Change isn’t new to Frank’s and the Volkmers, but this latest round of unprecedented and unpredictable change has been scary. “City funding and federal PPP support have helped a lot,” says Frank, Jr., “People, though, they’ve been so supportive and wonderful. They keep my morale up.”
Virginia Lansdale, owner of Indulgences Day Spa, credits neighbors and customers as well. “Holiday retail sales were up. We really appreciate the support of our neighbors.” At this point they’re breaking even, which, these days, Lansdale says, is a win.
Lansdale, too, is grateful for the city grant. They couldn’t have re-opened May 18th without it. Expenses accumulated as she prepared safety measures, but there had been no revenue. A long list of small things added up, things most people don’t think about: new trash cans (lids now required) and a mop for each of 7 treatment rooms, 3 bathrooms, and the reception area; HEPA filtration; scrubs and personal protective equipment for staff. Prices were running extremely high on items like face shields and masks.
After re-opening in May, Lansdale saw comfort increase as customers experienced new safety measures. And both customers and staff have taken the initiative to reschedule treatments if COVID-19 exposure or symptoms arise. Lansdale is proud of the personal services industry, pointing to extremely low COVID-19 transmission rates in settings like theirs across Colorado. “We’re here and we’re committed to what we do. And to everyone’s safety.”
Pinwheel Coffee at West 37th Avenue and Navajo Street focused on how to re-open safely as well, after being shut down for 6 weeks. Alongside its focus on bringing customers back and implementing new requirements, Pinwheel was equally concerned with the 30 Embark micro-school students it shares for embedded real-world learning with next-door neighbor Framework Cycles.
The city small business emergency support grant gave Pinwheel’s Operations Manager Joe Fulkerson time and resources to go virtual with the student coffeeshop curriculum, to add online ordering, and to launch a curbside counter for summer business. He needed to establish a few new vendor relationships and take care of tech challenges like getting orders from the curbside counter back to the barista and kitchen staff. But it sounds like it all paid off: Pinwheel’s summer months ended up being the busiest of their three years in operation.
Now Pinwheel has moved business back inside for the winter and is preparing for Embark students to return to the shop, in groups of 10, starting January 19th.
Meanwhile, not far away, Gutierrez is keeping his skills sharp and exploring new industries for prospective clients. He typically works with mid- to large-size companies, but recent projects with small businesses have nudged him to think a little differently and apply his skills in new ways. He knows that his own business will rebound as the industries he works with recover. Though this could be a while. When they’re ready, he’s here to help them tell their come-back story in a visually compelling way.
As 2021 begins, COVID-19 continues to impact small businesses. And the city is gearing up to distribute additional funds.
“Our focus on Denver’s economy has shifted from one of emergency aid to one of hope and recovery,” said Eric Hiraga, Executive Director of Denver Economic Development & Opportunity, “DEDO will continue to act on the behalf of business and workers to provide funding, resources and policy that will carry us into a future where there is opportunity for all.”
The city will add $1.5 million to Denver’s share of state small business relief funds approved in last month’s special session of the legislature and align the city’s process more closely with the state’s. Applications are now open. As of the time of publication, the most recent round is expected to close on January 26th, but business owners are encouraged to reachout to DEDO and check the city’s website for updates on timing and eligibility. Per state guidelines, grants will range from $3500 to $7000 depending on the businesses’ annual gross revenue from the previous year.
Editor’s Note: Independent of this reporter’s outreach, The Denver North Star requested data from the city regarding how much funding individual businesses received, but the city denied multiple open records requests. To be clear, there was no hint of impropriety with the small businesses interviewed for this story, who are struggling North Denver businesses and all of which seem well deserving. However, in light of questionable PPP loans by the federal government to political allies and businesses with ties to government official family members, and because the city is granting over $10 million dollars to nearly 2000 businesses, we strongly encourage the City and County of Denver to release all data regarding how much money is being given to individual businesses. In the spirit of full disclosure, The Denver North Star is one of the currently 1,796 businesses that has received a grant. The newspaper received $5,296. We appreciate the city’s grant to our small business; like others, we took a serious blow to income during the pandemic and our request for more disclosure is in the interest of the public good, not tied to the business side of the paper. The decision to cover this topic was made prior to the paper receiving a grant and did not influence our reporting.