Greg Fiske and Diamonte Walker of the URA. Photo courtesy of URA.

When the pandemic hit, organizations like the URA had to respond and adjust immediately. Eight months into the crisis, we checked in with Greg Flisram, executive director, and Diamonte Walker, deputy executive director, to see what’s working best and what they predict for 2021.

How was the URA able to respond to the immediate crisis brought on by Covid and how did it change the way you do business?

Diamonte Walker: I am grateful that we were bringing in Greg as our leader when Covid happened because he was immediately able to think from a strategic perspective what the URA response needed to be. Overwhelmingly, we knew that we needed to assist small businesses to focus on long-term economic recovery and to position ourselves to respond to the needs of residents facing housing uncertainty.

We were able to adapt a lot of our programs that have been developed to address equity concerns in the city and those programs were very quickly adapted to provide first response to the economic crisis that businesses and residents were facing.

Greg Flisram: I’m gonna give 100% percent credit to folks in our lending and investments and business solutions departments for quickly designing an emergency loan program. And then, folks in our finance department — I thank Diamonte for literally rifling through our couch cushions to find money that we could unlock and deploy into our emergency loan program.

We quickly put $3 million of our own money out on the street before the federal response was forthcoming so we knew we’d be providing some bridge funding for small business, some of whom, but not all obviously, who would have been eligible for CARES Act funding.

We knew that some of these businesses didn’t have three or four weeks of resources to keep their doors open. And so, Jennifer Wilhelm and Tom Link and our Lending and Investments and Business Solutions unit respectively designed a quick emergency loan program. We deferred loan payments, we didn’t charge any interest or fees, but we quickly got the money out the door — parlayed those funds and other monies that we were able to raise and did just a ton of small business loans in a very short period of time. So we’re very proud of that.

And we’re capitalizing the Minority Business Recovery and Growth Loan Program, which picks up where the emergency funding has left off.

Walker: In an average year, we deploy about $6.5 million in lending support to small businesses; in light of Covid, we deployed nearly $12 million, with a good portion of that going to minority and women-owned businesses.

So our year-over-year performance has been about 54 loans annually, and we are right now at about 334, so that gives you an idea of how we’ve accelerated our work on the lending front.

The other thing that became necessary was to provide technical assistance, to think very creatively about how to keep folks in business. So we worked very closely with the city to create opportunities for sidewalk dining and we also helped a few businesses transition into an online e-commerce environment.

Can you give me an example of businesses that you’ve brought online?

Walker: Not only did we bring businesses online, but we also used minority- or women-owned technical assistance providers to help bring those businesses online. A few that come to mind are the companies that are within the URA Gallery on Penn Catapult program, Naptural Beauty Supply and  Jazmiere Bates, the 14-year-old entrepreneur who owns Kin of Duncan.

Their businesses could have gone under, had it not been for being able to get that more robust online presence.

Greg Flisram
Greg Flisram. Photo by Dana Bohince.

What URA program do you feel has been the most effective in this period?

Flisram: I think certainly the emergency loan fund, given how quickly it was developed and deployed, was probably the most impactful, but we’ve been doing a lot of other things that I think may have more long-term benefit.

We provide a number of grants to business associations to promote things like sidewalk sales and help to adjust to Covid times in terms of getting businesses to have sales and events outdoors.

Our Biz Buzz grant programs also provide grants to small businesses to provide Covid-safe business events and marketing activities and technical assistance guidance around how to adapt to a post-Covid world. We have a commercial rent relief program as a way to share some of the pain for some of our commercial landlords.

I don’t know if one, in particular, has been the most effective, but I think in combination they have been a pretty solid intervention realizing there’s still a lot of work to do if more federal relief doesn’t come down the pike soon. I’m fearful that all the good work that we’ve been doing may just be postponing the inevitable.

Walker: I would concur with Greg that I think the emergency loan fund program has probably been the most impactful. It is an adaptation of our microloan program, so the same exact guidelines, but just engineered towards folks that were dealing with some economic uncertainty around Covid.

That program really put us on the radar of a few other folks in the region that wanted to also respond to Covid, and it allowed the URA to become a vehicle and a pipeline to deploy that support.

From a long-term perspective, I think that the Minority Business Recovery & Growth Loan Fund program , made possible by the PNC Foundation and the City, will probably have impact that resonates the most over the long term. Because it will allow minority-owned businesses that were doing well before Covid to continue to grow and thrive and keep our economy strong, and I don’t know that we would have been in a position to even think about a program like that if we hadn’t gotten a chance to understand more about these businesses, and how they were responding to Covid. PNC is funding this program.

Greg Flisram and Diamonte Walker of the URA.

Flisram: Also our housing interventions; we put a lot of money out there for rent relief programs. It’s kind of a social mission side of URA. Not sure that many people know that that exists in our house but we put a lot of resources in to keep people being able to make rent payments, utility payments and keep a roof over their heads and stay relatively current with their landlords during all this.

Walker: The Housing Stabilization Program has paid out or committed more than $1.8 million and helped about 94 refugee families and immigrants living in the city of Pittsburgh. We also quickly expanded our language access and immigrant/refugee outreach as those populations were disproportionately affected by Covid.

As you look ahead to 2021, what are you predicting in terms of recovery?

Flisram: It really depends on how quickly a vaccine gets rolled out and people see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. But unless something happens fairly quickly from a stimulus standpoint, and an economic recovery standpoint, I do think we’re going to be in for a wave of business failures.

We’ve deployed as many resources as we can. There’s a lot of things that we continue to do, but the resources are not infinite. And a lot of the businesses we’ve helped have just been eking by for several months now, especially the hospitality sector. I, unfortunately, see a wave of closures unless something miraculous happens and the virus abates or a vaccine is developed, or there’s more stimulus coming down from the federal government.

I think 2021 is going to definitely be a year of recovery, so I think barring some late arrival economic assistance, we’re starting to pivot from trying to save every business out there — realizing that there’s finite resources and we can’t help everybody indefinitely — to how do we get people in position for their next act or their next startup or their next venture when we come out of this? We have to be thinking in those terms, beyond just trying to get every business to survive indefinitely at a time of total Federal inaction.

Walker: I think we’re gonna start to see a different type of startup being born out of Covid, and the fact that it’s going to be harder for us to be in proximity to one another. I think that we’re going to see a lot of the conversations around equity have moved from talking to doing something about it.

The fact that Covid has been paired with a significant amount of racial unrest in our country; I think those two are sort of inextricable at this point. And I think that it will force us to rethink how we value essential workers. Not everybody has the luxury of working online.

I’m interested to see what happens in the life sciences, and how we start responding to this from an environmental perspective and what that could mean for small businesses as they pivot.

Flisram: The corporate sector is going to have to step forward on this a little bit and recognize that it’s in their self-interest — to work toward economic recovery in terms of how they’re helping to rebuild the small business sector and helping people enter and advance through the workforce development system.

I like to think that there may be a moment of more and more self-interested altruism, my new attitude among some of the top corporations to not rely on the federal government to do everything and to step forward and take on some more social responsibility and types of activities, whether it’s investing in minority neighborhoods, working more on apprenticeship style programs, bringing nontraditional folks into the workforce — in the sense of not all four-year college graduates.

We have a couple of pilot programs happening here in Pittsburgh now; Year Up being one of them where companies are reaching into the workforce, reaching deep into the bench and recognizing there’s a lot of talented people out there who need a leg up, and will work to try to figure out ways to bring them into the workforce. I’d like to see more of that.

In the examples have you have seen, are there any corporations you would cite right now already doing something like this?

Tracy is the founder and Editor at Large of NEXTpittsburgh which she started in March 2014 and sold in December 2020. She is passionate about making Pittsburgh a better place for all and connecting people to do the same.