Photo: Griffin Kelly. Larry Franco assists a customer at his store Concord Menswear in Fordham Heights. Franco also has a second location in Longwood.

Business owners look to grants and business improvement districts for relief

As the owner of two men’s clothing stores, Larry Franco is used to working more than 80 hours a week. But when the COVID-19 pandemic started, he had to close his businesses – Boulevard Menswear in Longwood and Concord Menswear in Fordham Heights – for three months.

“For it to be a Saturday, and I’m at home, that’s like a sin,” he said.

Once he was able to reopen his stores at the beginning of June, Franco had to make sacrifices to stay in business. He cut his staff from 10 employees to four, and he personally picked up inventory instead of paying for delivery.

With the help of a $10,000 grant awarded to him from M&T Bank at the beginning of October, Franco could relax for a while.

To help bounce back from pandemic-related losses, business owners like Franco are relying on grants and assistance such as aid applying for loans and free personal protective equipment from business improvement districts to help subsidize costs that would normally be covered by sales and services.

M&T Bank Administrative Vice President Steve Flax said grants were part of special project awarded to seven businesses in the Fordham Heights that were affected by the pandemic and recent looting. Flax said the grants came from a partnership with the Federal Home Loan Banks System.

Without the grant, Franco said he would have consider closing the Fordham Heights store.

He was able to negotiate a lower rent–$8,000 to $5,000 a month–at his Longwood location, but said:

“It’s not just the rent. It’s everything after that, you know, Con-Edison, taxes, payroll. It’s a lot of expenses.

“Basically it gave me a free month’s rent. There’s still the possibility of me closing, but this prolongs it.”

Franco said he’s also looking into grants from Lowe’s Home Improvement and loans from the borough president’s office.

Southern Boulevard Business Improvement District Executive Director Miles Burnett said his office helps business owners in the South Bronx like Franco look for grants.

BIDs are branches of the borough’s chamber of commerce. Franco is chairman of the Southern Boulevard BID.

Burnett said businesses should look to their local BIDs to help identify and apply for potential grants and loans. 

“[Grants] are sort of on a rolling, case-by-case basis,” he said in a phone interview. “I set my Google alerts. I wait every morning to see if another grant becomes available that I can let our business owners know about.”

Aside from grants, a lot of Burnett’s work with local shops was securing Paycheck Protection Program loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

One business Burnett’s office assisted was Duros UAS in Mott Haven, which manufactures submarine drones for maritime data collection. CEO Brian Wilson said his company had plenty of money already saved and weren’t affected too badly by the pandemic, but he still needed some help with loans.

“The business district initially sent things to help us know how the PPP loan is going to work, what the process is, what documents you’ve got to get together, so that was super helpful,” Wilson said in a phone interview. “Looking at it all on our own could’ve been tricky.”