Several Jackson restaurateurs won’t be using the low-interest loan program Gov. Tate Reeves said would “go a long way” to assist businesses as the city’s troubled water system hangs overhead.
And they can’t imagine many of their peers will, either.
It’s not that the businesses don’t need a lifeline. It’s that they don’t want to pile on more financial commitments while the water system and the city’s future feels unstable. Most operators already took out similar low-interest loans the Small Business Administration deployed in response to the pandemic.
Most businesses haven’t even started paying back those COVID-19 loans and many loaded up credit cards so they could afford bottled water and extra supplies to stay open during the water system’s seven-week failure.
“This has been more like a slow bleed than a car crash,” said Jennifer Emerson, who owns Fondren’s Walker’s Drive-in with her husband. “And no one wants to incur more debt.”
The SBA says about 60 businesses have started the application process so far. Lesley Hill, a public affairs specialist with SBA, said applying for and being offered a loan doesn’t mean a business has to accept it if the owner decides it isn’t the right fit later on. Businesses who don’t take an offered loan also have six months to go back and accept if needed.
Despite the end of the boil-water notice a week ago and politicians encouraging citizens to spend money downtown, restaurateurs told Mississippi Today sales have improved a little but are still lagging – down by anywhere from 25% to 40%.
Fondren business owners say they’re on edge knowing the coming month’s cold weather will likely bring more problems. Last winter, several businesses in the downtown district were left without water for more than two weeks when frozen pipes burst.
“I’d rather see a plan in place,” Emerson said. “It’s hard to get people who live in Jackson back, and it’s impossible to get people from the suburbs back, if they don’t have the confidence that the water is safe and clean.”
Reeves announced the water was safe last week, after tests at the plant came back clear for two days in a row. But local business owners said people are still skeptical and that has bled into their bottom lines in an industry already known for low profit margins.
“We recognize people already have SBA loans, COVID loans, and that the last two-and-a-half years have been trying on everyone,” Hill said. “Businesses have been affected to the point they’re no longer able to survive.”
Hill said businesses uninterested in loans should still come to their Business Recovery Center inside the Metro Jackson Chamber of Commerce building to be connected to free financial services with a partner group – some of whom have grant programs.
Dana Koenig, the manager of the Aladdin Mediterranean Grill, said the nearly seven-week boil-water notice was a nightmare to navigate. It was a scramble to get to Sam’s Club to get enough water just to wash vegetables. There were days the business shifted just to take out because they barely had water pressure.
“A grant I could understand,” Koenig said. “But a loan? How about not making us pay sewage bills for the days we didn’t have water.”
Visit Jackson, the city’s tourism bureau, has launched a small grant program but the payouts for businesses with 50-seats or fewer are $500 and for those with more than 200 seats up to $2,000. That’s the price range most businesses told Mississippi Today they were spending on water and ice just to get through a single week.
The Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program offers Jackson businesses loans with interest rates as low as 3.04% and payback period of up to 30 years.
The loans are often used by businesses who have been leveled by hurricanes or other natural disasters. Jeff Good, who operates Sal & Mookie’s and two other Jackson restaurants, called the loan program generous but not the right fit for what most of the city’s businesses need.
“For most of us restaurateurs in Jackson, a loan, which we must pay back, is yet another negative financial burden which we simply cannot justify,” Good said. “We simply want our operating environment to stabilize. We want water. We want safety. We want quality of life.”
Ezra Brown, the owner of Fondren’s new bubble tea shop Soulé, also won’t be applying for the loan program. He said he’s working on digging himself out of debt, not adding more.
“All we want to do is pay our taxes and deliver smiles,” he said of himself and area business owners.
He has other Soulé locations in South Carolina. He took out SBA loans to get through the throes of the pandemic and then hit the water crisis as soon as he opened in Jackson.
He would like to see state and city leadership create better contingency plans. Most business owners agree: Until the system is overhauled, it’s not a matter of if there’s another outage or boil-water notice but when.
“If or when this happens again: What do we do? Who do I call on? Is a truck coming to deliver emergency water?” Brown said. “A five-gallon would be great. Just something that makes sense.”
Brown is working on refitting his equipment with his own filter and abilities to go off the water grid. But he wishes he’d be able to rely on the city – and a well-explained plan to fix the water system to ease everyone’s mind and security.
“We have been rallying around each other,” Brown said. “I think the community has gained more momentum helping each other out of a bad situation.”
He has noticed more people coming back to Fondren. They’re leery still, he said. But with running clean water, he’s finally seeing more smiles.
At least that’s something.