Over the last four years, Bronxites have stood idly by and watched as the local economy has repeatedly plummeted, climbed up and dipped again. But on Thursday, elected officials and borough leaders said a new loan program with forgotten money will get Bronx businesses on the up and up.
Rob Walsh, the president of the Bronx Economic Development Corporation (BxEDC), announced Thursday morning the launch of the Bronx-specific $10 million business loan program — a sum of cash officials said he dug up in leftover “empowerment zone” money dating back almost 30 years. The New York Empowerment Zone is one of nine established by then-President Bill Clinton’s administration in 1994 to provide investment funds and tax incentives for businesses to open, expand and hire local residents.
“When Rob (Walsh) told me this $10 million had been left on the table since 1994 I could not believe it,” Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson said during the announcement.
According to THE CITY, Walsh actually discovered a total of $20 million in unspent empowerment zone dollars after assuming the BxEDC president’s post earlier this summer. He worked with the borough president’s office, the Business Initiative Corporation of New York (BICNY) and Bronx politicians to get half the total amount approved by the New York Empowerment Zone Corporation for the new program.
The $10 million in funding for the Bronx will be provided through the federal Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Community Advantage Loan Program.
“It couldn’t come at a more important time,” Walsh said.
The COVID-19 pandemic was particularly taxing on Bronxites. According to a 2021 report by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the Bronx lost 9,600 leisure and hospitality jobs from the start of the pandemic through the summer of 2020, which represented a 45.6% drop. Overall unemployment during the pandemic was also historically high in the Bronx — increasing from a steady 5.4% during the first three months of 2020 to 24.6% by May of the same year. According to the comptroller’s office, that high-water mark in the Bronx was likely only surpassed one other time in the last century — during the Great Depression.
New York officials have scrambled for the past four years trying to rebuild the local and state economies. In the Bronx just this year, efforts have included the addition of security guards on Fordham Road during peak shopping times, a “Shark Tank”-style business pitch program for entrepreneurs of color, and a $1 million bodega security upgrade program.
Unemployment in the Bronx has leveled out a bit more to 7.6% in June 2023 — although it’s still the highest in the state. Officials hope this new small business loan program will provide more economic stability — specifically in the underinvested South Bronx.
U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres, who represents many South Bronx neighborhoods in the 15th Congressional District, said the borough deserves to have its own specific funding allocation.
“History tells us that whenever there’s a nationwide or a statewide or a citywide program, the Bronx historically gets less than its fair share,” he said. He noted the Bronx only received 7% of New York City’s COVID-relief Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans from the SBA.
Trey Jenkins, the executive director of the 161st Street Business Improvement District (BID), told the Bronx Times that he welcomes the aid.
“This program will do wonders for businesses in our BID and throughout the South Bronx,” he said in a statement.
Jenkins said the 161st Street BID has been working on beautification efforts for the past six months or so, which include cleaning street furniture, signs and graffiti, as well as maintaining horticulture.
“Businesses in our district are doing OK but anything that can help them be more successful or help them cut through bureaucratic red tape is needed for them to be more successful,” he said. “Quality of life issues like crime and the illegal selling of cannabis throughout our district plague not only the businesses in our BID but throughout the city. Understanding and taking actions on these issues from our elected officials and the community is ultimately needed for this loan program to be successful.”
The Bronx-specific Community Advantage Loans range in amount from $5,000 to $350,000 for eligible small and mid-sized for-profit businesses — including partnerships, proprietorships, LLCs and qualified start-ups. The money can be used for payroll, inventory, equipment and loan refinancing costs, among other things. According to Torres’ office, the maturity of the loans are 10 years with interest rates that range from 2.5% to 6%.
BICNY says it will give “particular consideration” to businesses in the Bronx Empowerment Zone — which encompasses the South Bronx neighborhoods of Hunts Point, Port Morris and the Yankee Stadium area — and surrounding areas.
Torres said the loan program, to him, is “deeply American.”
“The story of America is a story of a country that is continually renewed by the intrepid risk-taking of grassroots entrepreneurs in places like the Bronx,” he said. “We are here because we see small business lending for what it is and what it has always been, which is an investment in the American dream.”
– ET Rodriguez contributed to this report
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