Kempner: I-85 returns, but who will bail out the hurt businesses?

With the I-85 bridge in Atlanta expected to reopen Monday if not sooner, small business owners clobbered by the month-and-a-half-long traffic mess have a nagging question: Will anyone help them get back on their feet?

Some want compensation from the government or maybe a tax break or just marketing help to let Atlantans know it’s safe to come out and spend again with them.

They probably shouldn’t hold their breath for much in terms of cold hard cash.

Asked by my colleague David Wickert whether the state has contemplated compensating local businesses, Gov. Nathan Deal said, “I don’t think that would be appropriate…. We just try to ameliorate the damage as quickly as possible, and I think we certainly have done that.”

The state — bolstered by the promise of a bunch of federal money — zipped through a rebuild of the interstate and now plans to reopen the bridge Monday morning or sooner, weeks before earlier projections.

At an event this week, the city of Atlanta’s economic development agency gathered banks, local organizations and government agencies to share information with business owners affected by gridlock that scared away lots of customers in the wake of the I-85 collapse.

“We want you to survive,” Kevin Johnson, with the agency Invest Atlanta, told business owners.

The challenge is making that happen.

Eloisa Klementich, Invest Atlanta’s CEO, told me she doesn’t think big tax breaks for affected businesses are likely from the city. But she said in addition to low-interest loans that were already available to local businesses, Invest Atlanta can help I-85-affected companies avoid initial payments on the loans for up to five months.

She said the city also will try to help get out the word about a campaign urging people to patronize Cheshire Bridge Road businesses May 17-20 for what’s being called “Dine & Shop.”

‘Write a check’

Several business owners I spoke with had mostly good things to say about Invest Atlanta’s efforts. Others thought more aid would be available.

“Write a check,” said Maurice Hill, who owns a nearby salon in the area. “Those businesses need some money, not money where you have to pay interest.”

Dean Chronopoulos, the owner of Roxx Tavern on Cheshire Bridge, had told me earlier that a 30 to 50 percent drop in sales was “devastating.”

I saw him at the Invest Atlanta event, where about 30 small business owners gathered in a local rec center.

“It’s a nice gesture, but at the end of the day, small businesses are looking at what kind of compensation can the city and the state offer,” he said.

For example, he said, what if the state could waive businesses turning in sales tax collections for a month or help with promotions to bring guests back in?

Karen Owens, who runs the Dolce Hair Designs salon, told me she has struggled to make rent payments because so few customers are coming in since the interstate shutdown. She said the state should take some blame for the mess because it stored plastic piping under the interstate that later was engulfed in a smaller fire the police claim was set by a homeless man.

Feds standing pat

A spokesman for the U.S. Small Business Administration emailed me to say that “currently there aren’t any federal funds available from the SBA for businesses that incurred losses due to the bridge collapse.”

That doesn’t seem likely to change. The governor apparently doesn’t plan to elevate his earlier declaration of a state of emergency to a declare a disaster area, which would start a process that could lead to economic injury loans being available to affected businesses.

Of course, there also are questions about whether taxpayer money is the right solution. We’re familiar with helping victims of tornadoes and hurricanes. Are those pummelled by a traffic storm also deserving?

Small businesses in the area have been particularly vulnerable. Those with single restaurant or store locations had few options for buffering themselves from falling sales.

More than 80 percent of nearby businesses polled by Invest Atlanta said they had lost customers due to the mess. About 18 percent of those who answered questions about sales said they had lost more than half of their revenue.

Business owners I’ve talked to worry that customers have changed habits and will be slow to reconnect, if they ever do.

In the Invest Atlanta survey, more than 40 percent of businesses queried predicted it will take more than three months for them to rebound.

Not God’s fault

Some owners I spoke with said they’ve been told their insurance for business disruptions won’t pay because the traffic isn’t considered an act of God.

Not every Buckhead business has been hurt, of course. And for some that were, the hurt was limited.

But pain also rippled beyond just the closest businesses.

Archna Becker told me fewer diners have been at her Buckhead Indian restaurant, Bhojanic, two and a half miles from the I-85 collapse. And expenses increased for her catering operation closer to the bridge, as many deliveries took three times longer than usual.

“It’s taught me you can’t be complacent. Anything can happen,” said Becker, who plans to boost her marketing, particularly once the interstate reopens.

In the meantime, there’s a powerful fix beyond what the government can offer: Our own wallets.

We can go out of our way to spend money with our entrepreneurial neighbors who have been sucker punched by an act of man.

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