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Congressman Byron Donalds connects with Black small business owners for policy ideas


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Congressman Byron Donalds connected with Black small business owners in Lee and Collier counties Thursday, planning to use their input to help shape national policy after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Donalds, the new representative for District 19 in Florida, which includes much of those two counties, also serves as a member of the Small Business Committee.

“We want to make sure that not even just in my district, but all districts, that we speak with minority business owners,” said Donalds, a Republican and the first Black representative of his region. “We want to see what they’re experiencing. How they’re managing through COVID-19. What have been their issues?

“We want to be intimately aware of it up here in Washington. To try and make sure the policies get reformed and streamlined to help business owners survive the current environment and get better in the future.”

A technical college owner, an online legal forms business owner and a web design firm owner were among those who participated in the hour-long call that also included Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer, a Republican from Missouri and the ranking member of the committee.

“I was very impressed that Congressman Donalds reached out and that he wanted to put together the virtual meeting,” said Carol Thompson Finn, owner and sole employee of MyLegalEdge.com, which offers legal forms to download. “That speaks to the caliber of his character and that he cares about the constituents in his district.

“It was very fruitful. He was able to bring together different genres of small Black businesses so their concerns could be openly discussed. Within the African-American business community, there were many that may fall through the gap. There needs to be a focused effort on making sure those businesses are taken care of and get the process streamlined for them.”

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Donalds said the biggest takeaway that surprised him regarded Personal Protection Program (PPP) loans, part of the CARES Act passed after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The one thing that did surprise me was the way PPP programs were set up, you actually have to spend the funds over a very short period of time,” Donalds said. “While a business that’s a multi-million dollar small business would have the capacity to spend those kind of funds over a short timeframe, it’s actually the much smaller businesses that have very few employees (that would have trouble with this). It’s a very difficult thing to spend that kind of money in that short window.

“One of the things we took from that is to try and take a look at that policy and try to amend it. To give the microbusinesses more flexibility with PPP funds to try to keep their businesses afloat.”

Sylvia Dorisme, director of operations for Zeal Technical Institute in North Fort Myers, told Donalds of her challenge to receive a PPP loan.

"I had to apply to three different banks before I could even get a response to receive the PPP," said Dorisme, who has six full-time employees and about 12 contractors who teach 400-to-500 students per year. "That was a little bit disappointing. But I received something, and I was able to keep paying my employees. My struggle was the lack of assistance during the first round."

Another aspect of the PPP loans troubled Dorisme, and she share that with Donalds as well.

"You can’t have the same requirements for a business that’s generating $100,000 a year versus a business that’s generating a million or more in revenue. Even though they may have the same amount of employees. I thought the requirements were a little unfair."

Donalds closed the call to media participation and viewing, but communications director Harrison Fields shared a few comments from some of the participants.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we were unsure what would happen,” said Harry Casimir, owner of Atilus, a Fort Myers-based web design firm. “If it were not for the PPP, we would probably have reduced some of our team members’ wages. The process was straightforward after submitting my application.

“Before that, however, the bank didn’t appear to know what the government expected from them. Also, the forgiveness application was very confusing until very recently. It would have been very helpful if the government could provide one directive to the financial institutions on collecting forgiveness applications.”

Cherline Louissaint, owner of Increase the Peach, a personal training business, said during the virtual meeting that the government could improve its service to the taxpayers.

"Although I love being a small business owner, during this pandemic, I learned that as much as we are publicly ‘celebrated,’ we are privately disregarded," Louissaint said. "Our plight during these very trying times has been overlooked over and over again.”

That type of input resonated with Donalds, he said.

“The No. 1 thing that I think they’re all experiencing, having conversations with constituents about this anecdotally and informally over the past several months, is actually having a banking relationship,” Donalds said. “People think a banking relationship is just having an account. Don’t get me wrong. That is a genuine relationship.

“But there are times like these, there has to be someone in the bank that you can call on. Because community banks have really been decimated by Dodd Frank, it’s really difficult to have an intimate relationship with a bank unless you have a longstanding lending or a large loan relationship with a bank. This is an avenue to help those small businesses that may not have those loan relationships with the bank. We can find ways for them to be helpful to each other.”

The Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act passed in 2010 during the Great Recession, after a massive financial meltdown that included the subprime mortgage crisis and hundreds of bank failures. 

Donalds said networking with Black small business owners in his district should carry over to the rest of the country.

“If a small business in Fort Myers or Cape Coral or Naples is experiencing these issues, you can make somewhat of a judgment that a small business in Peoria or Des Moines or San Antonio or Los Angeles or New York City is experiencing similar situations,” Donalds said. “Every region, every locality is going to have different economic issues. When it comes to lending and capital, those issues are going to be kind of consistent. We want to try to address those needs by engaging other members of  the committee to make it more streamlined for our small business owners to be successful.”

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Connect with this reporter: David Dorsey (Facebook), @DavidADorsey (Twitter).