Last fall, Aisha England applied for a $25,000 federal grant to help her small business, a soul food restaurant called England Eatery. She cried tears of joy when she found out she’d won the money, which she planned to spend purchasing a new kitchen hood and upgrading the plumbing of her Southwest Baltimore business. But as weeks and months passed, her excitement turned to frustration and later anger as England said she struggled to get the funds.

The grant had been advertised by a group called the Baltimore BASE Network, a partnership between the mayor’s office and Baltimore Development Corporation, with the cooperation of over a dozen local organizations that work with small businesses. Part of the group’s mission: to distribute millions of dollars in federal relief money to entrepreneurs who have been historically left out of traditional funding platforms, particularly women and people of color.

Some recipients interviewed by The Baltimore Banner, however, say the program promised them thousands that was delivered months late and only in partial amounts.

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In an interview about business owners’ concerns about the program, Colin Tarbert, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corporation, said the amount of cash BDC was charged with distributing on behalf of the city was unprecedented. Shamiah Kerney, chief recovery officer for Baltimore, did not respond to requests for an interview.

“The scale of this … it was a heavy lift. It was an important lift,” Tarbert said. It’s definitely outside our normal course of business.”

Baltimore gave BDC $11.7 million in federal funds, Tarbert said; of that amount, $8.4 million would eventually be awarded to small businesses. The remaining $3.3 million was shared between BDC and a number of partner organizations like Impact Hub and Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy. “We’ve never gotten this level of funding for small businesses,” Tarbert said.

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Over the course of two rounds of grants, BDC promised federal dollars to around 500 small businesses, including England’s. Of that total, more than half are waiting to receive their full grant amounts. More than 50 entrepreneurs are still waiting to receive their first checks.

The clock is ticking. BDC’s contract with the city ends in June 2024, and business owners have been told that they need to spend the grant money by the end of 2023. “Our goal would be to get the money out as soon as possible,” Tarbert said.

On its website, BASE, which stands for “Business Assistance and Support for Equity,” says it aims to help Black business owners and other people of color access federal recovery aid. But England said she was mostly left feeling used.

During Black History Month this year, England said she was stunned to see the BASE Network was using her name, along with a photo of her restaurant’s food, to promote its work on social media. At that point, she had yet to receive a cent from the program. “This is crazy,” she thought.

The business owners’ concerns about the program come at a time when others in Baltimore have flagged problems with how the city disperses federal money. A recent audit of Baltimore City’s finances found issues with record-keeping and oversight, and a report from the Abell Foundation found systemic issues with how Baltimore pays its partners. A massive influx of federal cash during the pandemic has posed particular challenges.

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Delays in receiving her BASE grant have had a cascading effect on England. Unable to access the money she’d been promised to pay for renovations, she stopped paying her own salary. Her car was repossessed. “This stress is going to kill me,” she said.

Tarbert said one of BASE’s issues has been balancing the individual needs of small-business owners while ensuring that they each abide by federal and local guidelines. “The compliance piece of it has been more detailed than our previous grant programs,” he said. “Some of these grantees are a little frustrated because they’ve never worked through a grant case, especially with federal funds.”

But England said she doesn’t know “what is special about this particular grant” that would cause her such unique headaches. Her business has received other grants in the past, including through the state-funded Project Restore, meant to spur new businesses in vacant properties. During COVID, a particularly difficult time for eateries, she even received a separate grant from BDC that arrived just weeks after it was approved.

When it came to BASE, though, England received her first check in April, months after she’d originally been told the money would arrive. It wasn’t until August, when she requested updates on her second check, that she found out there were issues with her documentation. Among them: England discovered that because she had paid for the work on her restaurant in cash, it wasn’t eligible for reimbursement — even though she had provided a receipt. Then she was told the company she used to install her kitchen hood was not among BASE’s approved vendors, despite the fact she had named the same company in her initial grant application

Impact Hub’s co-founder and executive director Michelle Geiss, who has worked with grantees through the BASE Network, said federal guidelines for how relief funds could be spent changed over time, becoming more strict as the government hoped to crack down on fraud. “The goalposts are sort of moving as we go,” she said. As a result, an earlier round of grants from BASE had gone much more smoothly than the second round, which England had applied for.

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But Geiss stressed that the pros of BASE’s involvement — and its commitment to giving money to disadvantaged groups — outweighed its drawbacks. “This has been overall a net positive with definite frustrating moments,” Geiss said. “But it is unprecedented to get 8½ million dollars into the hands of small-business owners,” most of them women and people of color. “We will see these business owners blossom and bloom in all kinds of ways” over the next few years, she said.

Though Tarbert praised BDC’s partner organizations, he acknowledged “gaps in communication” between BASE representative and grantees. He said that staff turnover, as well as the challenges of managing a large network of partners, played a role. Right now, BDC has two contract employees working with BASE grant recipients and is in the process of hiring a full-time staff coordinator. “With the addition of that person … I think we’re getting better at helping grantees figure out what they need to do to be compliant,” he said.

More people doesn’t necessarily mean more clarity. “They’ve got so many people working on this, and nobody knows what they’re doing,” said Baltimore chef Melanie Kerr. Kerr said she spent months trying to track down her $10,000 grant from BASE, during which time she was assigned to work with three different case managers. The response times left much to be desired. When she reached out to her contact person in late August, she received the following automatic response: “I’m currently unplugged from work to rest, reflect, and restore. I will not be checking emails during this time.”

“There’s no accountability,” said Sumayyah Bilal. Her Codetta Bakeshop was awarded $25,000 through the grant program — money Bilal planned to spend on rent and staffing at her new storefront downtown. But it took several months to receive her first installment, and Bilal received the second half just last week. The process left her demoralized; she wished she’d never applied for the grant.

“We would have been fine” without the money, she said, but she can’t get back the hours she spent tracking down the grant and rearranging her business projections to account for its absence. “There was a lack of care in the process.”

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Kerr had planned to use the grant to overhaul marketing strategy and add staff to her catering company, Chauncey’s, an investment she wouldn’t have explored without the grant. “It made me make different decisions coming into this year than I probably would have,” Kerr said. But when months went by without any sign of the funds, she said she was forced to spend from her own savings.

After multiple attempts to contact BASE, Kerr said she finally received a check for $5,000 in May. She is still waiting for the remaining $5,000.

“Somebody should answer for that,” she said.

Baltimore Banner reporter Adam Willis contributed to this article.

This post has been updated.

christina.tkacik@thebaltimorebanner.com

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