Hundreds of Harris County small businesses see COVID loans forgiven

Some Harris County business owners, who struggled to stay open during the pandemic, are starting the new year breathing a little easier. A county program that offered tens of millions of dollars, in financial assistance, has been able to turn some of that money into a 'gift'

Jena Moreno's company, The StoryHive, is one of those businesses. "In February, we knew there was a problem, for us, as a small business," says Moreno. The east end video and animation production house does most of it's work between December and April. With events and meetings that evaporated as the pandemic took hold, the business and nearly a dozen employees on shaky ground.

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A federal PPP loan was able to pay people for a couple of months. Then, a $25,000 zero-interest small business loan, from Harris County, was able to keep things going a little longer. "It was scary," says Moreno, "You sign up for all of these things, and you don't know what you're signing up for, but you do know you can't let your employees go during a pandemic."

Harris County partnered with the Houston-Galveston Area Council to disburse $40 million dollars, in loans, to small businesses at risk of collapse. Now, $10 million dollars in federal Cares Act money is able to convert hundreds of those 'loans' to 'grants', that don't have to be repaid. "Instead of allocating precious financial resources to paying back a loan, they can use their funds for important things like paying staff salaries, paying rent, utility bills, and keeping their business afloat," says H-GAC manager Omar Fortune.

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Harris County commissioner Adrian Garcia spearheaded the original effort to make the loans available, and while he says the grants are great, demand is even greater. 7000 small businesses asked for help and resources could not stretch far enough to help them all, as the pandemic continues to take a terrible toll. "I'm seeing boarded up doors; I'm seeing empty buildings, empty parking lots; I'm seeing places that used to be bustling, and that's not the case, today," says Garcia.

Still, it is encouraging that 444 small businesses received grants, that will reduce financial pressures, as other counties and states are copying the way Harris County made that happen. Additionally, the new administration has signaled that additional relief efforts are a high-priority to help those who are still struggling.