San Antonio small businesses say city grants to cover construction losses don't go far enough

Owners say the city payout is paltry and comes too late to undo the months of damage they have suffered.

click to enlarge Many businesses along the St. Mary's Strip are inaccessible by car or sidewalk, and completion of the construction work is still months away. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
Many businesses along the St. Mary's Strip are inaccessible by car or sidewalk, and completion of the construction work is still months away.
Kayla Matta, owner of Sunshine Bakery on North New Braunfels Avenue, isn't jumping for joy about San Antonio's plan to provide $2.25 million in grants to businesses that have suffered from the city's delayed construction projects.

It's not because she'll have trouble qualifying.

Matta's parking lot has been blocked to varying degrees since last fall, when workers  dug up the street out front make improvements. She now operates on a pickup-and-delivery model since her store's so hard  to reach. A loyal customer recently suffered a blowout trying to navigate the remains of the street.

While Matta recently applied for a county grant to help cover lost revenue, she's concerned the city's $10,000-to-$35,0000 grants — leftover money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act — will be depleted quickly. After all, they're open to businesses in 15 different construction zones now active around San Antonio.

"It sounds like the problem is there's not enough to go around," Matta said. "I wish there was a way to send in a photo with your application and say, 'Look at what you have us working with.'"

She's not the only skeptic. After city officials unveiled details of the relief program during a Wednesday city council meeting, other small business owners said the outlay isn't sufficient to cover the pain they've weathered for months, and in some cases, years.

"I think it's a start, but it's a start a year or two late," said Aaron Peña, owner of St. Mary's Strip cocktail lounge The Squeezebox. "It might prolong the inevitable for some people — a closure — but it's not life-changing."

The program's timing four months ahead of May's citywide election also should raise eyebrows, Peña added.

Business owners on the Strip said they were first told construction there would be complete in six months or so. However, after a series of delays, the once-bustling nightlife destination now resembles a war zone. Much of the street is closed to vehicles, and sidewalks leading to many of the affected businesses have been reduced to rubble.

"We're two and a half years into this thing, and it's been pushed back and pushed back so many times I'm not even sure when it was originally supposed to be done," Peña said. "Now, we're looking at summer of 2023."

click to enlarge Sunshine Bakery’s Kayla Matta said her parking lot has been inaccessible to customers. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
Sunshine Bakery’s Kayla Matta said her parking lot has been inaccessible to customers.
Slipping through the cracks

Peña said he plans to apply for the city money. He's already seeking similar funds from the county and the state. But he acknowledges that many mom-and-pop businesses aren't lucky enough to have a CPA to provide guidance.

"I think it's going to work a lot like it did with PPP money during the pandemic," he said. "If you don't know how to navigate the process, you're not going to apply."

Chris Cullum of St. Mary's Strip restaurants Cullum's Attaboy and Cullum's Attagirl said the city's maximum $35,000 payout would only cover a fraction of the hundreds of thousands in revenues his businesses have lost out on during the construction.

"Stakeholders on St. Mary’s Strip have lost more than you can imagine," he said. "Consumers are habitual, and that has been destroyed. It will take us years to recover. Once the construction is done and the sidewalks are in, people don’t just magically show up right away."

He said the amount of time it took city officials to finally respond to the cries of small businesses has left him disillusioned.

Eric Hanken, owner of longtime St. Mary's Strip music venue The Mix said business owners have discussed suing the city over the construction delays. He said he wouldn't be surprised to see some make good on that threat if they're dissatisfied with the size of grant they receive from the city.

"The issue with these projects is that people cycle through," Hanken said. "The person who you were initially talking to is gone, and now it's someone else. There's no ultimate responsibility."

Sunshine Bakery's Matta said things have improved slightly in the area around her shop. After she called the city enough times, work crews opened up limited access to her lot. Still, she's not holding her breath for things to improve quickly — even if she manages to land money from the city.

"It doesn't seem like they're really finishing anything," she said. "They're just digging one hole and moving on to another."

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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