Wildrose, one of Seattle’s oldest LGBTQ nightspots, has been hit hard by the pandemic. Co-owner Shelley Brothers said Capitol Hill bar is “just trying to survive.” They turned to the Ready for Business Fund, led by Comcast and the Greater Seattle Business Association, for help. Wildrose and about 60 other Seattle businesses got $2,500 grants and business support. (Courtesy of Wildrose)
When Seattle shut down as coronavirus flared in March, Shelley Brothers thought the pandemic would be just another minor bump on the journey of her bar, Wildrose.
“We went into this thinking we’d close for two weeks,” says Brothers, Wildrose’s co-owner.
A Capitol Hill staple, the woman-owned, woman-operated lesbian hangout had weathered decades of discrimination and plenty of economic downturns. Before coronavirus, Wildrose drew “a large cross-section of our community, and Seattle in general,” Brothers says, with events ranging from DJ nights and drag queen shows to live music, spoken word and comedy sets.
Located in a 100-plus-year-old building, Wildrose has massive windows looking out onto the city. Those windows are unusual for an LGBTQ bar, and they are one of Brothers’ favorite features. “We’re not hiding in the dark,” she says.
Few are enjoying those views these days, too few to sustain the business without help.
Wildrose’s doors stayed shut for two solid months, and reopening, when it began in mid-May, has been painfully gradual. Wildrose started by offering takeout, and then in late June opened at a reduced capacity. Pride, which usually accounts for about 20% of the bar’s annual revenue, was a no-go.
With the future of the business in jeopardy, Brothers was relieved to learn about a new grant program, the Ready for Business Fund, founded by Comcast Washington and the Greater Seattle Business Association, or GSBA, Washington state’s leading LGBTQ and Allied chamber of commerce. The fund, which began making $2,500 grants in late September, has helped more than 60 of the nearly 500 businesses that applied for relief, including Wildrose.
The fact that the Ready for Business Fund received so many applications so quickly validated that Comcast and GSBA were on the right path. That flood also served as a sobering reminder of what’s at stake, says Diem Ly, Comcast’s director of community impact and external affairs.
“It’s both inspiring and it further reminds us of the need in our small business communities. We have to keep going and evolve our support as their needs evolve,” Ly says.
During the pandemic, it’s become more apparent than ever that small businesses are the soul of Seattle’s economy and the backbone of the city’s communities. Brothers’ venue is merely one of hundreds working to come out on the other side of this crisis.
‘You do cry with them’
Louise Chernin, president and CEO of GSBA, has been working with Seattle small businesses for more than two decades, building lasting partnerships along the way. Under Chernin’s leadership, GSBA also cemented its place as the first call for LGBTQ business owners, and Seattle entrepreneurs generally, when they need guidance.
As the pandemic set in, Chernin and her team started receiving panicky phone calls. Funding from the federal government quickly proved irrelevant to small businesses. GSBA’s inboxes were already flooded by business owners struggling through a pandemic and economic meltdown, Chernin says, before the murder of George Floyd sparked a wave of protests in the Seattle’s downtown core. It became difficult to distinguish one crisis from the next while fielding desperate pleas from business owners.
“You do cry with them,” she says.
In Chernin's experience, business owners are incredibly capable people reluctant to ask for help. Yet she can’t count how many times she’s recently had owners ask, “How do I pay my staff? How do I pay myself?”
Still, Chernin says business owners have demonstrated admirable grit. Most work with an incredibly thin profit margin to begin with. Even in better times, four-fifths go out of business within five years of opening.
When Comcast set out to help create a fund that would support local small businesses experiencing difficulties brought on by the events of 2020, Ly says she immediately thought of GSBA to run it. The chamber has a strong emotional connection to Seattle’s small business scene.
In mid-July, Chernin, Comcast representatives and others met virtually to discuss a relief program. A little more than two months later, the Ready for Business Fund was launched.
The first round of grants focused on businesses owned by LGBTQ people, Black, Indigenous and People of Color and women. Priority was given to those located in Capitol Hill, First Hill, the Central District and the International District, areas of Seattle hit hardest in the downturn, to support business owners who run the restaurants, bookstores, bistros, shops and stores that enliven Seattle’s vibrant urban commercial districts.
Comcast’s Ly says the support fund builds on a foundation of trust and deep-rooted friendship with Chernin and her team. Over the years, Comcast has experimented with different programs meant to assist the business community.
When it comes to corporate responsibility, Ly says an involved, highly-engaged partnership is the key to making initiatives like the fund succeed. “We have to work hand-in-hand with our community partners,” she says, and respond to their guidance and experience with our company resources to achieve change.
Both teams rolled up their sleeves to get the fund established by Aug. 3 with a $50,000 donation from Comcast Washington. GSBA would be the fund administrator. Their main aim was to get businesses funded – with grants that don’t need to be repaid – by early fall.
As grant applications poured in, GSBA collected more than $200,000 to support the fund, including a second $50,000 contribution from Comcast. AT&T, BECU, Grace Church Seattle, Harborstone Credit Union, Microsoft, Puget Sound Energy, Sanctuary Seattle Church, Seattle Storm, US Bank, Verity Credit Union and several generous community members also filled the fund.
Seattle’s small businesses struggling
Ly says the grants were guided by a series of questions – what do small businesses need right now, how should those needs be prioritized, and what will make it easy for businesses to access those grants? The team, Ly says, focused on providing funding and marketing visibility, two elements that seemed most critical for small businesses at that time.
From there, they developed a campaign with micro-grants complemented with creative and free marketing resources, including video production, broadcast airtime and other support. To help with marketing and visibility, select awardees receive wraparound services from GSBA and Comcast, including GSBA membership, and marketing and consultation services from Comcast Business and Effectv, the advertising sales division of Comcast Cable.
Ly has learned through years of experience that it’s necessary to take a broad view of social corporate responsibility; funding alone is not enough. “We have to think differently how we contribute to our communities – including our small business districts – in a responsive way that has longer-term impact,” she says.
Comcast and GSBA kept the application process as simple as possible. There was no prerequisite regarding a business’s size; the grants were simply aimed at uplifting others who are struggling. Chernin hopes these micro-grants provide a boost that says, “Your community cares about you.” Businesses should feel trusted to use the $2,500 however they deem necessary, Ly says, for payroll taxes, buying supplies, taking down window boards or meeting other needs.
In a time when basic activities feel crushingly complex, Brothers says the grant process was incredibly smooth. “It was the simplest [application] that asked all the right questions,” Brothers says.
Throughout this process, all involved have felt passionate about not requiring small businesses to jump through hoops. In the end, this initiative achieves three important goals – visibility, marketing and cash – all as quickly as possible. As part of the fund’s wraparound services, the aim is to send a clear message: We are open for business.
For communities that face discrimination, small businesses often offer economic opportunity that’s otherwise in short supply. Restaurants and shops also become vital gathering and social spaces.
Chernin described GSBA as the organization that tries to “right some wrongs” for marginalized communities. Some of those wrongs have been highlighted in recent demonstrations that put a spotlight on the racism embedded in systems ranging from healthcare to education to policing.
“By investing first in marginalized groups,” Chernin says, “you enrich our communities. We all become better because of the diversity.”
Pedro Gomez, small business development director for Seattle's Office of Economic Development, recalls chatting with South Park business owner Judith Herrera about the locals who visit her Muy Macho food truck nearly every day. “This is their safe place, their community,” Herrera says.
Aside from contributing to the city’s cultural fabric, small businesses support countless families, especially those in marginalized communities. Gomez comments, “A lot of [immigrants] come from places where entrepreneurship is simply what you do.”
Businesses with 50-or-fewer workers employ nearly 200,000 people in Seattle. On average, these business owners’ cash reserves can only cover 27 days of expenses, Gomez says. Many have far less in the bank, and those savings have been drawn down during the pandemic.
“When you take all of this and add in historical challenges of structural racism, for those already struggling pre-pandemic … [they] now have an even bigger ladder to climb,” Gomez says.
To respond to the economic impacts covid-19 had on the community, the Office of Economic Development launched the Small Business Stabilization Fund. Applicants had to employ five or fewer staff and earn under 80% of area median income for Seattle-Tacoma. Businesses in neighborhoods at high risk for displacement were given priority.
That fund has issued $10,000 grants to 469 businesses. It was a $4.7 million drop in a very large bucket; more than 9,000 businesses sought help.
“Our goal was to help as many people as possible,” Gomez says.
The city-run fund benefited in part from early support of local private businesses, including Comcast, which donated $50,000 to address the urgent need for more grants. Three rounds of grants have been released so far, and the city is currently working to launch a new grant process.
Throughout the pandemic, the Office of Economic Development has helped small businesses adapt to the new restrictions, extending temporary sidewalk and street closure permits that provide outdoor retail space for shops and enable eateries to offer alfresco dining. It has launched new tent and heating permit rules to help businesses maintain operations during colder months.
The city also implemented a 15% cap on delivery service fees charged to restaurants and created the lease amendment toolkit that helps small businesses and nonprofits navigate rent negotiations.
Despite the struggles so many face, Gomez remains optimistic. “Small business owners are scrappy, because they have to be,” he says.
“I know a lot of business owners and the character and energy they carry inside of them,” he continues. “I absolutely have hope.”
For Brothers and other small business owners, cash isn’t the only thing currently on short supply. Hope is, too.
The stress of mandated closures, and being at the epicenter of Seattle’s protests, have presented multi-layered challenges for Wildrose, Brothers says. The business lost foot traffic from folks who used to regularly swing by en route to dancing or a show at nearby Neumos.
The Ready for Business Fund grant offered a reprieve, though Brothers says it seems impossible to plan for the future. It’s daunting to look at their books. Despite their landlord being “very decent,” the business is simply not generating enough revenue to pay basic bills. She’s thankful the grant that can be applied toward mounting expenses like rent and utilities.
“It’s just trying to survive right now,” Brothers says.
A second round of Ready for Business grants will include applications from businesses that weren’t selected during the first round, and expand to include other areas currently experiencing disproportionate hardship. “The more the funds keep coming,” says Chernin, “the more we can get the word out.”
Chernin calls this collaboration between GSBA and Comcast “a love affair,” referencing the strength of partnership to transform community. “We think Ready for Business will resonate for everyone,” she says, by “doing the right thing at the right time.”
“We are so excited for this campaign,” Ly adds. “It was just common sense for us.” Ly and Chernin hope they’ve created an easily duplicated model, and they’re already sharing lessons with other leaders.
“There are many layers of good, always, when you work together,” Chernin says. “I hope this shows the power that can come when bigger and small businesses work together for the community. … It’s been eye-opening, it’s opened our hearts and helped get us through this tough time.”
In the end, Chernin says, “business is a path for economic justice.”