Kalamazoo makes $2M loan fund available to small businesses

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

One-percent-interest loans from $5,000 to $50,000 will be available to help businesses in the city of Kalamazoo that have realized a significant financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Businesses located in the city of Kalamazoo with less than 50 employees and annual revenues of less than $2.5 million can apply as early as today (April 1) for assistance through the Kalamazoo Small Business Loan Fund program found here.

At a special online-only meeting Tuesday evening, members of the Kalamazoo City Commission unanimously approved the use of $2 million from the Foundation for Excellence’s Aspirational Fund to create the loan fund program. The program is a collaborative effort of the foundation and the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region.

“Our goal was speed to market as we started this 10 days ago” Steve Brown, manager of the Foundation for Excellence, explained to commissioners about the planning process to create the loan fund. “And it needed to happen now.”

The Foundation for Excellence is a public-private initiative created in 2017 to help stabilize the city’s budget, lower its property tax rate, and fund aspirational community projects.

Chris Sargent, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, spoke of the crisis many businesses have realized since Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer banned gatherings of more than 50 people to help corral the quickly spreading coronavirus (COVID-19).

The March 17 order effectively closed most businesses that are not deemed to be essential to sustaining life. That has resulted in the immediate layoffs of large numbers of workers. And it has left many small business owners struggling to try to pay their suddenly cash-strapped employees at a time when consumers have been told to stay home in order to remain safe.

Commissioner Chris Praedel said that since the COVID-19 shutdown, he has talked to business owners who have as few as seven, two or one employees. He said each was trying to keep his workers going and keep paying them, despite the slowdown.

Of one owner, Praedel said. “You could tell that this person would sell the shirt off their back to just keep this person employed.”

He said, “I’m so incredibly proud that we can step forward to help people like this.”

And, of the loan program, he said, “For all those people, and for all those people who work for those people, this is for you.”

According to information presented to the commission by City Manager Jim Ritsema, “This program is designed to offer life-lines to small businesses and their workers, especially businesses with workers in the category of ‘asset limited, income constrained, employed’ (ALICE), and retains workforce capacity in this time before state and federal programs have impact.”

“Eligible businesses are those that need working capital to support payroll expenses, rent, mortgage payments, utility expenses, or other similar expenses that occur in the ordinary course of business,” according to the city. And they must be able to demonstrate an income loss as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak or the governor’s executive order.

Brown said the program is focused on asking “Have you been hurt by this crisis? And how can we help you and help you fast?”

Some things to know:
• The loans are 36-month agreements but the repayment of principal and interest with 1 percent interest does not begin until six months after the closing, followed by a fully amortizing 30-month term.

• Participants will sign loan agreements with promissory notes. The loans will not require collateral.

• The program is considered to be emergency relief and is intended to be a temporary program.

• Loans will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis until grant funds are exhausted.

• The effort is geared toward helping businesses to support their workers.

• A six-person loan advisory board will review applications and approve the loans.

That advisory board will include individuals from banking, business development, United Way, and others. In response to questioning by city Commissioner Eric Cunningham, Brown said the board will also include two women and two people of color.

Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson, Brown, Sargent, and others praised the work of many who have been collaborating to meet the emerging needs that are coming with efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19.

The loan fund was approved after about 45 minutes of discussion in a first-of-its-kind online meeting for the city commission made necessary by the executive order for Michigan residents to stay home. Participants attended the meeting via the Zoom meeting application and by telephone connection.

The city’s action comes less than a week after the application process for small business loans and grants through the Michigan Small Business Relief Program was opened by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. That program is making up to $20 million in grants and loans available to small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. The financial support is intended to help businesses that are facing drastic reductions in cash flow. Key information is available here

A crisis of civics and civility
Tuesday night’s special meeting ran head-long into the challenge of handling public comments when members of the public are not present at city hall to account for what they say.

At the start of the online-only electronic meeting, the commission struggled to pass an “Electronic Meetings Resolution,” an action that was required for the public body to follow that ban on large public gatherings as ordered by Michigan’s governor and not violate the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

As explained in information by City Attorney Clyde Robinson, the Open Meetings Act “requires public bodies to be physically present, hold meetings open to the public in public places, and permit public comment.” 

Although Governor Whitmer has declared a state of emergency to slow the spread of a contagious disease, she is allowing public bodies to meet electronically “so as to conduct public business while restricting or limiting public gatherings and meetings.”

That required the city commission to get public comment before voting on the Electronic Meetings Resolution. And it opened the door for several people who participated anonymously by telephone or video conferencing to spew racial and ethnic slurs, as well as shout at least one disparaging remark about women and random swear words before they could be muted.

Using pseudonyms like Harry Potter, Ted Bundy and Some Ting Long, as well as common names, their rants ranged from teenage swearing and an insult about the shape of the mayor’s head to saying that all of one ethnic group should be gassed and all of another should be killed.

Of about 10 comments offered before the first resolution was passed, more than half were inappropriate or seemed to come as pranks by teens.

As city commissioners explored what actions could be taken to deal with those who would disrupt the meeting for their own amusement, the city attorney was not optimistic about how the matter could be addressed.
“The open meetings act allows for freedom of speech,” Robinson said.

While he and various commissioners said there is no room in the city for hate speech, Robinson said that going online opens the door for trolls “who will log onto a meeting to make light of the meeting. The Internet allows for anonymity and I don’t have an answer for how we get around this.”

Vice Mayor Patrese Griffin pushed against suggestions that the council cut short the call-in public comments. A suggestion arose to replace the call-ins by allowing the public to email their comments to the city and have them added to the public record.

The commission agreed that it would not take public comment before its vote on a resolution to create the Kalamazoo Small Business Loan Fund program, but in the public comment period that occurred near the end of the special meeting, more inappropriate remarks were made from callers. City Manager Jim Ritsema said during the meeting he had just been informed that the city's meeting information had been shared with a gaming platform.

Of about 28 calls that were entertained during the public comments portion of the meeting, 14 were inappropriate, including one that was ended when the caller said he had just done two tabs of Ecstasy.

The commission’s next business meeting is also expected to be held electronically. It is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, April 6. City staff was asked to research what other communities are doing to deal with inappropriate comments during the public comment periods.

Mayor Anderson and others worked to keep the potential of electronic meetings upbeat. He thanked city staff and members of the commission as well as people working to ameliorate the spread of COVID-19, including grocery store workers.

“Let’s all remember to keep our focus on those who are most vulnerable,” he said, ``Let's keep our hearts open, Kalamazoo. I love you. We are adjourned.”

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.