Friday, January 21, 2022

Boca Raton Chamber Wants City to Step Up With Small Business Loans

The Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce wants at least $500,000 from the city’s economic fund to help businesses hurting from the COVID-19 restrictions.

As detailed in a proposal that city council members received about an hour before Tuesday’s 6 p.m. meeting, the money would go out in amounts no larger than $5,000 per business and on a first-come, first served basis. As with the federal emergency program, the city likely would forgive the loans if owners used the money for essentials such as rent payments and retaining or rehiring employees.

To be eligible, a business would have to occupy commercial or retail “brick and mortar space” within Boca Raton and be able to demonstrate harm from the March 24 closing of non-essential businesses. The property couldn’t have liens or code violations. Gross annual revenues could not exceed $1 million. The owner would need to have operated for at least a year. He or she would need to have a good credit score and guarantee the loan.

Boca Raton’s economic development fund usually often goes toward incentives designed to attract new business. The city replenishes the fund each year with another $1 million.

Council members expressed varying degrees of support for a program that other cities have authorized. “We have to make this work,” Andy Thomson said.

They also, however, had questions. Monica Mayotte asked who would enforce compliance and whether businesses should qualify if they have received loans through the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Mayor Scott Singer said, “I like the concept,” but he worried about “practical difficulties.” He noted the rush for the first round of federal loans—also first-come, first-served —that rewarded some businesses simply because they had better Internet service.

City Manager Leif Ahnell wondered whether the program might cost more than $500,000. Would the city cut off people at that limit? Ahnell also said that he would bring to council members at their next meeting annual items from that same fund that are increasing in cost, such as the city’s contribution toward the Boca Raton Bowl.

After some confusion, the council affirmed that it will continue workshop meetings—discussion only—each week until the virus crisis eases. Ahnell said he would “put some thoughts together” for next week on the chamber’s idea.

But life inching on 

Non-virus business does continue for cities. Example: the city council’s procedural vote Tuesday on a new elementary school next to Don Estridge Middle.

The city is donating the land to the Palm Beach County School District. Until the governor closed schools, the district was using the land as a temporary campus for Verde Elementary students during construction of their school. If classrooms reopen in the fall, Addison Mizner students will attend while their school is built.

According to Deputy City Manager Mike Woika, the district would like 16 acres for the permanent elementary school. It would relieve crowding at Calusa Elementary in northwest Boca. The city prefers a 12-acre site. Some of the discussion could be over the district’s wish for enough room to allow middle school grades, if needed.

Woika said the 16-acre design could affect two Boca Raton wellfields on and near the property. But he added that the city and district have been working on a resolution. To keep things moving during this time of irregular meetings, the district wanted to put on Wednesday’s agenda a contract to design the school. Even though a decision on the size is not final, the council’s support was enough to avoid stalling things.

The district estimates that the school will cost about $19 million and has budgeted the money.

Singer a virtual pro

Mayor Scott Singer

Singer showed again Tuesday night that he knows how to run these virtual meetings.

As usual, uninformed residents demanded that the city council open Boca Raton’s beach. As usual, in a measured way, Singer reminded the speakers that the county has closed beaches, not the city.

Another speaker accused the council of “hiding behind” the county in not opening beaches and easing restrictions on businesses, which have been closed under Gov. DeSantis’ executive order. On Thursday, the governor began to lift restrictions elsewhere, but he kept them in place for South Florida because the region has roughly 60 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases.

During his comments at the end of the meeting, Singer pushed back on that accusation. After noting again that the city doesn’t have the authority to open the beach, Singer listed all the virus-related things that Boca Raton has done to help residents, such as seeking more tests and getting state resources to keep Boca Bash under control.

In these unprecedented times, residents are anxious and sometimes unreasonable. Even in the council’s virtual meeting format, Singer has offered a calming presence.

Local schools get high marks

classroom

Speaking of education, US News just released its 2020 list of the nation’s best high schools. Like so much else, it got lost amid all the virus coverage.

As in previous years, Suncoast in Riviera Beach and Dreyfoos in West Palm Beach got the top rankings in Palm Beach County. This year, though, Spanish River High School beat out Boca Raton High for third. Spanish River ranked 52nd among 1,088 high schools in Florida. Boca Raton was 60th.

Next in the county came AD Henderson-FAU High (70th in the state), West Boca (83), Olympic Heights (121) and Atlantic (143.) Among the 24,000 schools in the country that US News surveyed, Suncoast ranked 106th. Spanish River was 1,105th.

School attendance?

I have written about the school district’s tracking system for virtual student attendance during the virus crisis. Apparently, it’s rare.

The Center for Reinventing Public Education examined 82 districts nationwide. Of those, only 19 have been taking attendance since classrooms closed. Of those 19, seven are in Florida.

Bad–but not worst case

It may cheer Realtors in South Florida to hear news that is only bad, not lousy.

Wells Fargo reported Wednesday that while home sales dropped 21 percent in March, mortgage applications for the last week went up 11.6 percent. They remain down 20 percent for the year compared to 2019, but as Wells Fargo said, “Many other parts of the economy are down much more than this.”

Drive-by farewell

At a time social-distance wedding and funerals, Delray Beach on Wednesday gave a retiring fire-rescue captain a social-distancing sendoff.

Ilene Rose’s colleagues did a drive-by ceremony at the station on Linton Boulevard for the 26-year veteran. In a news release, Rose described the department as offering her “the best job in the world.” Chief Keith Tomey said, “Capt. Rose’s wealth of knowledge, calm demeanor and experience is going to be sorely missed in this department. I wish we could keep her a little longer.”

Boca Helping Hands fundraiser

With large gatherings prohibited, Boca Helping Hands will hold a virtual fundraiser at 7 p.m. Friday.

According to a news release, Boca Helping Hands will livestream the event on Facebook. Nashville recording artists Dawn Marie Psaltis and Kurt Stevens will perform along with speed-painting performance artist Dale Henry.

Boca Helping Hands has been holding an online auction since April 24. That will end halfway through Friday’s event. All information is available through the group’s website, bocahelpinghands.org

Normally, Boca Helping Hands would be holding its Monopoly event. The Covid-19 pandemic changed the format but not the need, which only has increased. Boca Helping Hands said the event will “raise money for backpacks filled with food for food-insecure kids, meals for families trying to make ends meet during the pandemic, and job training for people who need new careers now that so many are out of work.”

Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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