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East County Wednesday, Mar. 25, 2020 2 days ago

Local Lakewood Ranch area businesses search for answers during COVID-19 threat

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Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance provides information about loans and financial aid.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

A month ago, Karen and Rich Medford were living large.

Their Sirius Day Spa, which first opened in September, 2018 at The Green in Lakewood Ranch and then expanded to University Park, has been well received by the community and has been a financial success.

The Medfords in turn invested in their community with both their time and money, supporting many nonprofits. They are regulars at the many special events to raise money for those in need. It seemed a perfect match.

Then the COVID-19 hit.

Let's Create Art owner Leda Francis is trying virtual art classes and "To-go kits."

On March 23, the Medfords announced their business would close through April 1, and perhaps longer, to protect their 34 employees and their customers. Beyond that date is uncertain.

"One of our employees just brought a house," Karen Medford said. "Another one just moved into an apartment. One has five kids.

"It's horrifying."

The Medfords have two children of their own, and suddenly all the security they had built has crumbled, at least temporarily.

"No one told us we have to close," Karen Medford said. "And people want to come here. We've gotten mixed messages. But we're trying to figure out what is the right thing to do."

The right thing might be the more expensive thing. Besides dealing with the coronavirus scare, Karen Medford said their landlord, the North American Development Group that owns The Green, just raised their rent significantly.

"As of right now, our landlord is less than sympathetic," she said. "We've been getting cards from them saying we are eligible for (disaster) loans to help us pay the rent. I got another one today. You can't make this up. It's awful."

Like many other business owners in the area, the Medfords aren't sure whether any adequate assistant will be offered by the state or federal government.

Rich Medford doubts whether small business owners will have access to any adequate financial assistance.

Dom DiMaio, the CEO and president of the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, said his organization is trying to keep its members informed about emergency aid available due to the coronavirus.

"They are going to bail out big business," he predicted.

The Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, which has Sirius Day Spa as a member, hopes to help its members with finding information about financial assistance. CEO and President Dom DiMaio said information about programs is available at the Alliance's website (lwrba.org).

DiMaio said business owners have to be cautious, though.

"The state has a zero percent loan you can get like that," DiMaio said, snapping his fingers. "But it's zero percent for 12 months and 12 percent after that. It's meant to be a bridge. You have to immediately figure out how you are going to pay it back in 12 months, or you will be paying dearly."

A Federal loan, administered through the U.S. Small Business Administration, offers 3.75% financing and up to 30 years to pay it back, but the qualifications are murky.

A stimulus package by the federal government had yet to be approved by Congress at the Observer's press deadline.

DiMaio knows the region's business owners will have tough decisions to make.

"We picked up food (March 16) at Valentino's (Shoppes at University Center)," DiMaio said. "Nobody was inside. More important, only a couple of employees were behind the counter."

Then Gov. Ron DeSantis closed all the restaurants on March 20.

"You are going to see the government throw more money at this thing than they've ever done before," DiMaio predicted. "This is no different than a storm. It's going to cost us as taxpayers. It's going to cost us all, but it's fair."

Leda Francis, who owns Let's Create Art at Main Street at Lakewood Ranch, isn't sure what kind of financial assistant might be available to her. At the present, she is concentrating on ways to generate revenue.

"I had to back away from all the information," she said. "I had been consumed, watching it constantly. I had to give my mind a rest."

At almost noon March 23, Lakewood Ranch Main Street was deserted.

She said a state loan that charges 12% after a year wouldn't do her any good.

"So you get back to the sales you did have, and then you need more to pay the loan back," she said.

She is trying to keep Let's Create Art open, even though she can only host very small groups.

"We have limited seating to 10, and we have been no where close to that," she said.

On March 21, her studio was set to offer its first virtual class using Zoom.

She also offers art "To-go kits," which basically is an art project, along with video instruction, in a bag. The project has been a savior, as she has sold approximately 50 since Main Street at Lakewood Ranch effectively closed down when bars and restaurants were shuttered.

Five of Francis' employees aren't working until the coronavirus passes and she worries about them. Presently, she still has one employee working along with her daughter, Whitney Vance.

"One of (the five) has three kids," she said. "My daughter has three kids. We're concerned. It's a huge financial impact on everyone. Right now, everything is day to day."

Francis was asked how the public could help her. She said people could buy a "To-go kit."

"They can order it online," she said. "Then they can drive by, pop the trunk, and we can drop it in there for them."

The Sheridan at Lakewood Ranch assisted living facility purchased "To-go kits" for several of its residents in memory care. An employee met Francis at the door wearing gloves and a mask.

Another assisted living facility in the area was interested, but told Francis they couldn't accept any kind of package. 

"But it's so relaxing for people to do," Francis said. "You just focus on what you are doing."

At the Florida Cancer Specialists Foundation office in Lakewood Ranch, it's not the time to relax. Executive Director Lynn Rasys said they might have lost $220,000 to $300,000 in revenue due to fundraising events that have been cancelled in March, April and May.

Rasys said the foundation is hoping to reschedule the events if possible.

Meanwhile, the office staff of seven employees is working remotely.

"The patients are still applying for grants and financial assistance for their everyday, non-medical expenses," she said.

There is more work to do because the foundation had to postpone its volunteer program, which uses 400 people who provide patient support and comfort. Twenty volunteers who work in the Lakewood Ranch office processing applications and answering phones are not available until the coronavirus threat ends.

Rasys said she believes there will be access to disaster relief loans for nonprofits, but what that might be remains unclear.

The Alliance will help. "Once this all passes, we will assist our members the best we can," DiMaio said.

The Medfords were asked how the public could help them at a tough time.

"Don't freeze your membership," Karen Medford said. "You're not going to lose anything. You will have that money to spend when everything is fine. That's the only thing that keeps us alive.

"I am having great difficulty with all this. I can't believe this is happening. Everything was so wonderful."

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