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Waco businesses reaping rewards from grant program

Waco businesses reaping rewards from grant program

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Devin Li and Denitia Blount are college graduates doing business in Waco, while Wannika Muhammad owns a trucking company with permits to drive coast-to-coast hauling freight. Success stories all, and a local assistance fund is helping offset damage COVID-19 has inflicted on their ventures.

So far, a local advisory group has awarded 175 grants to what might be viewed as mom-and-pop businesses employing fewer than 10 people. A total of 133 went to businesses owned by minorities, women or both, said Waco Housing Director Galen Price, who administers the program.

“The majority of requests involve those needing assistance with their rent or lease payments,” Price said. “Others are concerned about general operating expenses, and several have indicated they could go out of business.”

Applicants needing a helping hand could secure up to $5,000 under the Small Business Emergency Recovery Fund created by Waco and McLennan County. The city and county set aside $830,000 from their economic development war chest, encouraged applications and received requests worth $2.6 million.

The city and county each plan to increase their annual contributions to the Waco-McLennan County Economic Development Corp. fund by $250,000 each next year, bringing each entity’s contribution to $2.75 million for 2021. The money typically provides grants to encourage companies to build or expand job- or tax-generating operations in the area.

Muhammad, owner of 4 Sons Trucking, said she started calling for the COVID-19 relief fund early on.

“On behalf of the East Waco Business League, I made a call to action on Facebook right at the start of the pandemic,” she said. “I felt Waco should follow the lead of Austin and create a local relief fund for local business until the federal stimulus kicked in. We are taxpayers. We do contribute to this economy. I thought it was fitting that the city of Waco look out for its citizens in their time of need.”

Muhammad said she recruited involvement from the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, and lobbied for polling of small businesses to determine their level of economic pain.

“Payroll and keeping bills paid until the federal stimulus, that’s what was heard the most,” Muhammad said. “Everything with the federal government is a big bureaucracy, but business still has to operate. That’s the feedback we were getting in the surveys. Businesses I have talked to found it very helpful. Some may need more than $5,000, some may need less.”

Muhammad said her trucking operation received a $5,000 grant.

“I spent it,” she said with a laugh when asked what she did with it.

She said most went to pay employees of 4 Sons Trucking, which uses flat-bed trucks to haul massive loads such as wind turbines and generators. It has permitted authority to move goods into the 48 contiguous states.

“We took our first load into Canada last year,” Muhammad said.

Denitia Blount, from Colorado, studied education at Baylor University, taught school 17 years and moved back to Texas with her husband, Norris Blount, a former defensive back for the Bears who played briefly with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons before founding Excelsior Staffing.

Norris Blount also served as sports chaplain for Baylor, having studied for the ministry at Covington Theological Seminary in Georgia.

Denitia Blount launched a business in Waco, Oh My Juice, which sells fresh juices, salads and smoothies from space on South Second Street. It overlooks the Wingstop restaurant in The Shops at River Square Center.

Securing a $5,000 grant “was a godsend,” Denitia Blount said. “It allowed us to move our operations curbside and to offer delivery. The transition was a beast, as it represented a whole different way to do business.”

The money also allowed Blount to keep her nine-person staff employed full-time, except for a two-week stretch when part-timing became a necessity.

Blount said she also received money through the Payroll Protection Program meant to help business owners through the COVID-19 rough patch.

“That money had to be spent within eight weeks,” she said. “We have a year to spend the Recovery Fund money, which gives us a little extra breathing room. We put the money in the bank and will hang onto it until it’s absolutely needed. I couldn’t believe the city of Waco did that. Not that I didn’t think they were generous, but this has hit everybody so incredibly hard, and it never occurred to me there would be funds available.

“A lot of my friends down here are really struggling making it through. Every penny counts, and when someone offers a $5,000 grant, it’s like, wow, somebody threw us a lifeline. Everybody who applied for the money, including myself, is incredibly grateful.”

The pandemic sliced the customer count at Oh My Juice in half, from 200 a day to closer to 100, but the numbers now are climbing. They should continue to improve with resumption of classes at Baylor, Blount said.

Devin Li and his wife, Jaja Chen, own an offbeat place called Waco Cha at 1101 Franklin Ave., where they specialize in handcrafted organic milk tea.

Li studied engineering at Baylor University, took a job in Houston, then returned to Waco to go into business. Chen, a clinical psychologist, has opened Chen Counseling on Austin Avenue, offering services to patients struggling with burnout, trauma and perinatal mental health issues, Li said.

Li said Waco Cha received a $5,000 grant just last Tuesday after “hiccups” during the processing phase that concerned him. He said federal assistance Chen Counseling received wound up complicating the process, delaying his check by weeks until he inquired and made his feelings known to the local officials involved in the application process.

“We are very, very grateful. I don’t meant to sound ungrateful,” Li said. “But the whole communication process was lacking. It was stressful.”

He said he does not believe the application process for the $5,000 grants referenced other financial assistance, and regardless, he thought Wao Cha and Chen Counseling should be judged independently.

Li said the money was used to grow Waco Cha’s food line.

Price, program administrator, said the application and funding process has completed two phases. In the first round, grants averaged $2,782, while in the second round, they are averaging $3,492.

More money may become available to continue the program, though it may hinge on federal Community Development Block Grant availability, Price said.

City of Waco spokesperson Larry Holze said the Waco City Council will vote Sept. 1 on a 2020-21 budget that proposes $300,000 from the city’s general fund to “leverage” Community Development Block Grant money the city may receive.

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