San Diego expanding business relief program with private donation campaign

The city seal on the door to City Hall.

San Diego is expanding its $6 million COVID-19 small business relief fund with more than $300,000 in private donations that city officials are characterizing as a catalyst for additional contributions.

The GoFundMe online philanthropy platform, one of three local businesses that donated $100,000 each, will help attract more contributions by aggressively promoting the initiative on its website.

The new money will likely go to businesses that didn’t previously qualify for the city’s relief fund because of rigorous state and federal eligibility requirements for much of the money.

The $6.1M city fund, launched March 27, has attracted more than 9,300 applications and initially crashed the city’s website.

Through Monday, 65 businesses had received $10,000 grants. While some have expressed frustration that money hasn’t been disbursed more quickly, city officials predicted a timeline of two weeks when the program was launched.

The program will eventually help 500 to 610 businesses with either grants of $10,000 or low-interest loans of $10,000 to $20,000. So far, no businesses have decided to move forward with a loan, city officials said Monday.

For the private expansion of the program, the city will rely on Cal Coast Credit Union to collect donations and San Diego Grantmakers to evaluate applications and administer grants.

Cal Coast and Qualcomm joined GoFundMe in donating $100,000 each to launch the program. Since then Chatmeter has contributed $1,000, and Sweep, a small scooter management company, has pledged $500 per month for a year.

“With the help of generous corporate partners and San Diegans alike, we are expanding our small business relief fund to keep more businesses afloat during these turbulent times,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said. “Small businesses are the backbone of our local economy, and these businesses need our support more than ever.”

Councilwoman Barbara Bry, a high-tech entrepreneur before joining the council in 2016, urged local businesses to contribute if they can afford it.

“Right now, it’s important to enhance the city’s economic relief package to help more small businesses ... and to include those who are based and operated from their homes,” Bry said.

A recent survey of 681 businesses conducted by the San Diego Economic Development Corporation found that the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated many small businesses.

Based on the survey, 379 employers plan to eliminate 14,524 jobs — 68 percent of their combined workforce. On the other hand, the survey found that more than 11 percent of firms are still planning to fill positions.

Cal Coast chief executive Todd Lane and Sweep chief executive Rich Branning said they were honored to participate.

“Our community thrives when small businesses thrive,” Lane said.

“It has always been our mission as a company to go the extra mile for this city,” Branning said. “San Diego is built on the backs of these great small businesses.”

Grantmakers chief executive Debbie McKeon called the initiative critically important. “In times like these, philanthropic efforts lift up the generosity of our region.”

The city’s relief fund is open to businesses with 100 workers or fewer that can demonstrate they have suffered financially from the pandemic.

Grants and loans are being disbursed on a first-come, first-served basis. City officials said that most businesses will probably need additional help from other sources, such as an emergency federal program doling out small business loans.

The city program is not open to nonprofits, businesses with more than 100 workers or businesses that opened within the last six months. It’s also not open to chain stores or restaurants — even if they are owned by a local franchisee.

Other businesses that are ineligible include insurance companies, home-based businesses, golf courses, race tracks, gambling facilities and lending and investment institutions.

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In addition to the relief program, the San Diego City Council is scheduled Tuesday, April 14 (after press time), to approve a 120-day “grace period” for payment of annual business license fees.

— David Garrick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune