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Southland businesses, pushed to the brink during pandemic, call Cook County assistance vital

Monday, April 05, 2021
Daily Southtown
by Bill Jones

For Luz Cavazos, it is hard not to get emotional when she starts to talk about the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic nearly gutted Juicy Luzy Sangria, the business she has run with her husband, two children and extended family for five years.

“It’s impacted us a lot,” Cavazos said. “It’s emotional, because when you start a new business, you’re not making a profit. Everything you put into it goes right back into the business.”

The toll the pandemic had on her Oak Lawn business was compounded because, in addition having to close her sampling room, many of her customers are restaurants that also found themselves struggling for more than a year. Festival wine sales were gone. Revenue streams were hard to find, and she was not sure how long Juicy Luzy could endure.

“We turned to any programs that were available,” Cavazos said. “We turned to all of them.”

That included working with Accion, a financial services firm that works to empower people who are underserved, as well as chambers focused on women- and Hispanic-owned businesses. Cavazos applied for grants and ultimately received one for $10,000 from the Cook County COVID-19 Recovery Small Business Assistance Program.

“That money went all through the business,” Cavazos said. “I’m grateful there was all this help.”

It helped her cover rent, pay bills and buy products and other supplies to stay afloat. It also allowed her to plan at a time when things were looking dire for Juicy Luzy. She switched her focus to online sales, shipping sangria and offering curbside pickup.

“I thank God for everybody who’s ordered,” Cavazos said. “I’m just grateful for everyone who helped us. I’m so grateful to still be in business, trying to make it.”

She knows not everyone was so lucky. While Cavazos said things are not quite the same as they were before last March, she is hoping by summer or fall she will be back to something closer to normal.

“I know that’s going to take some time,” Cavazos said. “It’s getting a little better.”

The Cook County COVID-19 Recovery Small Business Assistance Program provided financial support and technical assistance through its Chicago Business Advising Program. That helps businesses address needs, acquire new capital and customers, understand finances, change management and risk management, adjust business models and operate under changing safety regulations.

As of mid-March, the small business assistance program had helped 3,646 businesses. Of those, 1,690 received a total of $16.9 million in grant funding and technical assistance. The other 1,956 small businesses strictly received technical assistance.

Oak Lawn ranked highest in applicants with 31. Also in the county’s Top 10 were South Holland (30), Bridgeview (27), Dolton (27), Calumet City (24), Chicago Ridge (24) and Matteson (23). South and southwest suburbs represented roughly 35% of total suburban applicants. Any business that received a grant through the county’s program also received technical assistance.

Allen Kern’s Senses To Soul School of Music in South Holland received $10,000 from the county as well as $6,600 from other sources. That money saved his business at a point when he was three months behind on rent.

“If it wasn’t for the grants, I would have had to close,” Kern said. “It was very helpful, helping to pay the rent and utilities.”

Kern was a music educator for 18 years in Chicago Public Schools, teaching both high school and elementary students. He opened Senses to Soul in 2007 as a production studio but in 2018 turned it into a company and started teaching music. Things were looking up for him just before the pandemic.

“In 2019, I had a pretty good year,” he said. “My student membership had really increased.”

In February 2020, he held a banquet for his students. And in early March 2020, they conducted a gala performance with 20 of his close to 30 students performing everything from jazz to R&B to classical.

“My calendar was beginning to fill up for the year,” Kern said. “A week after our gala, we learned that COVID-19 was going to shut everything down. It has affected my business drastically.”

Kern lost roughly three-quarters of his students immediately. He was able to continue teaching eight of them through online sessions. The events, rentals and production sessions he had scheduled were on hiatus.

He turned to anyone he could for help, including the South Holland Business Association and a mentor with the Southland Development Authority. He said Cook County ended up being instrumental, providing a webinar and grant opportunities. He also found many resources through Accion. The money he ultimately received helped him upgrade his internet capabilities, which with other thing rejuvenated operations at Senses to Soul.

“It was helpful buying my equipment to build my livestream capabilities,” Kern said. “It’s helping to build a new revenue stream.”

He is now working on a jazz streaming series to showcase acts also trying to survive the pandemic. He’s also upgrading Senses to Soul’s physical space so that as performance return he will be better prepared to accommodate them with whatever restrictions are in place.

“2021 is a year where I can see things starting to improve,” Kern said. “I started getting students back. ... My income stream is improving”

Kern said he hopes his focus is soon back on his mission to provide opportunities for area musicians and offer affordable music education to youths having trouble finding those lessons through school.

“Music is important,” Kern said. “My goal is to get the community to realize just how important music is.”

According to Cook County data, more than 60% of the businesses assisted are owned by people of color, and more than 45% are owned by women. That is by design, according to Nick Mathiowdis, press secretary for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office.

“This is a result of program design and our robust network of 35-plus partner organizations,” Mathiowdis said. “The partnership model was effective in reaching a broad set of small businesses.”

The partners help the county reach small businesses with fewer than 20 employees in “historically disinfested communities” that were hit the hardest by COVID-19, he explained. Business advising was provided by organizations such as Allies for Community Business, Berwyn Development Authority, Chicago Trend, Chicago Urban League, Cook County Black Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Southland Development Authority and the Women’s Business Development Center.

The county worked with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to develop a tool to equitably allocate $51 million in CARES Act funding to suburban municipalities.

“This tool aimed to address growing disparities of communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” Mathiowdis said.

Don Wilson, the managing broker and owner of Park Forest-based Wilson Realty Group, was among those who received a boost from the county. He has worked with a group that now includes three other agents since 2006, but rebranded it under his name in 2019.

He said the pandemic threw off all of his predictions. It left most real estate agents with a unique problem: People wanted to buy houses, but sellers got squeamish about letting people into their homes while COVID-19 was spreading. That reduced stock for realty groups.

“When the pandemic hit, that changed everything,” Wilson said. “The pandemic forced me to take a step back and readjust my plan.”

He ultimately received $13,000 in grants from Cook County and others. With it, he said he was able to get things moving again, increase his technological capabilities and support his branding, recruitment and training efforts.

“I was able to dream a little again,” Wilson said. “It’s trending upward.”

Mathiowdis said the county is tracking the success of the program two ways. When it comes to technical assistance, the county is surveying businesses as they complete their coaching sessions. They also plan to survey all grant and technical assistance participants this summer to learn more about the program’s impact.

Bill Jones is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.

Bill Jones

For Daily Southtown

Bill Jones is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.

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