- The Washington Times - Monday, January 21, 2002

Christina Lopez has been unsure about a lot of things since September 11. The owner of Bergeron's Flowers & Gifts in Alexandria isn't sure when people will start buying flowers again like they used to. Nor is she sure when some of the various buildings where she drops flowers off will be able to accept deliveries again.
For a while after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington Mrs. Lopez wasn't even sure how much longer she would be able to stay in business.
But she is sure about one thing with a $42,000-loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration on the way, she can start to get back on her feet again.
"If something didn't turn around by January, I would have had to close my doors," she says.
Mrs. Lopez, like many area small-business owners, has taken a beating after the September 11 attacks. While they are trying to get back to normal some companies are only just starting to recover if at all. As a result of their financial battles, thousands of businesses across the country have turned to the SBA for help.
Originally President Bush declared all five boroughs of New York City and Arlington County where the Pentagon is located as disaster areas. That meant, among other things, that the SBA would provide low-interest disaster loans to small businesses located there, as well as those in Fairfax County, Alexandria, Falls Church, the District and Montgomery County in Maryland.
To be eligible, applicants have had to show substantial economic injury as a direct result of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or from federal government action like the temporary closing of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Demand for help
But due to an unprecedented widespread economic effect, the SBA expanded its disaster-loan program and now offers loans of up to $1.5 million, nationwide.
As of Jan. 16, the SBA had approved more than 3,800 loans in excess of $323 million nationwide.
There have been 62 loans approved worth $8.3 million in the immediate Pentagon area and 2,849 loans, worth nearly $230 million, have been approved in New York City.
In New York City the loans are not just going to small businesses with financial problems. In addition, homeowners and businesses of any size are reaping the benefits of the SBA's loan program. Homeowners there have received 271 loans, worth about $4.2 million, to repair or replace damage, and 395 loans worth $24.7 million have gone to businesses for physical damage to their property or machinery.
No home loans or loans for physical damage to businesses have been distributed in the Pentagon area.
More than 950 loans worth about $85 million are being distributed throughout the country to businesses as close as Lanham, Md., and as far away as Guam. The businesses run the gamut from travel agencies, airport businesses and shuttle and bus services to caterers, production companies and engineering firms.
Nearly 40 small businesses in Maryland and Virginia, not located directly adjacent to the Pentagon, have been approved for close to $5 million in loans under the expanded loan program.
Originally the loan deadline was today but because so many applications were still outstanding and the enormous number of businesses that have been affected by the attacks, the SBA extended the deadline. The deadline is now April 22 for expanded economic injury disaster loans and June 21 for economic injury disaster loans.
William E. Leggiero Jr., area director of the SBA's Disaster Area 1 office, expects to dish out as much $500 million in loans by the time the deadlines arrive.
Overall the SBA has given out more than 43,800 applications overall but about 20 percent of them have been returned. That's compared to a 40 percent to 50 percent return rate during other disaster-loan programs due to tragedies like earthquakes or hurricanes, says Mr. Leggiero, whose office covers the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic area.
To be eligible for the economic injury loan, the company must be considered a small business, and that criteria is based on the industry. In the retail sector a business can make no more than $5 million in sales. In the manufacturing and wholesale sector the company can have no more than 500 employees.
Businesses are approved for the disaster loans based on their ability to repay the loan and their inability to obtain a loan somewhere else. The loans, however, cannot be given to businesses with financial problems before September 11.
Turnaround time for SBA decisions is a little less than 10 days in this area. But it may take about 20 to 30 days before businesses get the money. That's based on the amount of time it takes for a business to get the paperwork back to the SBA and the time it takes for all that paperwork to be processed.
Mr. Leggiero says there are various reasons why businesses don't return their forms right away. Some businesses don't know if they want to go into debt or if they want to stay in that location and some are just trying to assess their needs for the future.
For many businesses "they don't need loans, they need customers," Mr. Leggiero says. "They're hoping to hold on as long as they can."

Customers wanted
Mamie Dorris, co-owner of Incognito, a hats and accessories store at Union Station, couldn't hold out for very long and visited an SBA office to begin her paperwork almost immediately after the attacks.
"Right after September 11 it was a ghost town," says Ms. Dorris, who owns Incognito with her daughter, Natalie.
Business had dropped at least 40 percent in the weeks following the attacks. And Ms. Dorris still had to buy winter merchandise to fill up her shelves but the customers weren't there to make the sales.
"We were not at the point where we had to shut our doors," Ms. Dorris says. "But we were frightened. The question was when were we going to rebound?"
That uncertainty led Ms. Dorris to the SBA where she was approved for a $31,000 loan. She doesn't have to start paying back the 4 percent interest loan until October.
The loan was used as working capital "cushion," Ms. Dorris says, to get back on track. At this point business is almost back to normal, she says of her store, which opened September 2000.
"Business is coming back," Ms. Dorris says. "But it's not 100 percent."
The same holds true for the cafeteria at the Ford House of Representatives office building, which is just starting to get back to business as usual.
For a while the 500-seat cafeteria, which serves on average 1,900 people a day, was desolate not because of the September 11 attacks but as a result of the outbreak of anthrax in government buildings.
"The anthrax is a catastrophe," says Artemis Dimopoulos, manager and daughter of owner Jordan Skenteris.
The building, located just a couple of blocks from the Capitol, was closed Oct. 17, tested positive and didn't reopen until Nov. 6.
Three weeks without any business hit the Skenteris family hard. More than $23,000 worth of food had to be thrown out. For a while they were down to 500 customers a day when the cafeteria reopened.
Throughout November and December business was about 50 percent what it was usually that time of year.
"We depend on outside business and unfortunately with the barricades outside the building and higher security, it's been tough," Mrs. Dimopoulos says. "People think twice about coming here."
Business gradually started to pick up after the holidays and during the first full week in January the cafeteria was almost back to usual at about 90 percent.
"We're back on track," Mrs. Dimopoulos says. "But we were very concerned."
The cafeteria, which continued to pay its 18 to 19 employees during the time it was closed, fell behind in payments to vendors and suppliers by nearly two months.
Mrs. Dimopoulos says the $50,000 SBA loan will be spent on those bills and give the cafeteria working capital trying to at least prepare itself for another catastrophe.

No money to spend
Mrs. Lopez's Alexandria flower shop had a 30 percent drop in business post-September 11 through October. November and December was just slightly better but business was still down more than 20 percent.
Mrs. Lopez says the economy isn't helping her business either as people have less discretionary income to spend on things like flowers.
"Flowers aren't a necessity, they are an extra," she says. "People don't have the money to spend."
And the ban on deliveries to 15 to 17 buildings in and around the District continues to put a dent into Mrs. Lopez's business. Before September 11 Bergeron's made on average 15 to 20 deliveries a day. On Thursday, Jan. 10 two deliveries were scheduled.
Mrs. Lopez started going to the Alexandria Small Business Development Center on a weekly basis to see what she should be doing to get back on track, especially if she couldn't get an SBA loan.
At first the SBA turned Mrs. Lopez down because of the store's lack of cash flow the exact thing she needed to stay afloat. But she was determined and resubmitted the paperwork to the SBA and reapplied for the loan.
"I needed to prove to them it was worth their while," she says.
Apparently she did.
Mrs. Lopez was approved for a $42,000 loan on Jan. 10. She'll use the money to pay off vendors and send out marketing material to potential customers, especially since Valentine's Day one of the busiest days for florists is right around the corner.
"I can't force people to buy," Mrs. Lopez says. "But if you let them know you're there and when they are ready to buy they will think of you."


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