Paycheck program proves its local value

Owner Carol Laufersky, left, of Oak Meadows, helped support Julie Kendrick, center, of Ocklawaha, and general manager Amy Powell, of Summerfield, through the Paycheck Protection Program while they worked at Sammy Joe’s Pizzeria Cafe at Mulberry Grove Plaza.

Carol Laufersky recalled the apprehension she felt last year during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Government safety precautions shut down the dining room at the Sammy Joe’s Pizzeria Cafe she owns at Mulberry Grove Plaza. Laufersky feared not so much for herself, but employees she adores as extended family. “It was scary,” she said. Then Congress initiated, with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, as a co-author, the federal Paycheck Protection Program. It was a lifeline for her and thousands of other business owners that provided them with nonrefundable loans so long as they used the dollars to keep idled workers employed.

“It was a godsend; truly a blessing,” Laufersky said. “I’m so grateful. When we came out the other side, we hadn’t lost anyone.”

Team Pride

Sammie Joe’s was among the beneficiaries of 1,410 total PPP loans valued at $143 million that Citizens First Bank secured in 2020 and 2021 on behalf of businesses in and around The Villages.

Signed into law on April 24, 2020, PPP expired on Memorial Day.

Round one of PPP in 2020 through the U.S. Small Business Administration managed program saved the jobs of 13,745 workers in The Villages and its extended community, said Lindsey Blaise, president and CEO of The Villages hometown community bank.

The effect of the government lockdown on local businesses concerned Blaise so much that she and her staff worked evenings and weekends in those early days to process as many PPP applications as possible.

“As a community bank, it is our ultimate honor to help support our community, and we were able to do just that in a significant way by helping local businesses obtain their PPP funds,” she said. “It is truly an amazing feeling knowing that you are making an impact in the lives of local business owners and employees. There aren’t words to express how proud I was of our team and how they handled the PPP program.”

Effective Tool

Congress, through the actions of leaders like Rubio, saved millions of workers and their employers from economic disaster, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the nonprofit American Action Forum research group, said about the first round of appropriations during Dec. 10 testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship.

“The $525 billion authorized by the Paycheck Protection Program and disbursed by our nation’s banks is perhaps the single-most effective policy tool deployed by Congress in response to the economic stresses posed by COVID-19,” said Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Under the watch of Rubio, then chairman of the Senate committee, Holtz-Eakin even supported a second round of appropriation.

“Any weaknesses exposed in the program are far outweighed by its successes, and were Congress to reinstate the PPP without any program changes, this would likely be a significant benefit to the economy,” Holtz-Eakin told the committee.

Profits Impacted

The SBA announced on May 5 it exhausted PPP’s first, second and third round of appropriations before the closing date on Memorial Day.

“That doesn’t mean that Congress couldn’t add more money — Lord knows they know how to do that — but the PPP has been a policy success whose time has passed,” Holtz-Eakin said in a recent economic advisory statement. “It is time for the federal government to return small-business finance to the private sector. Given the progress against COVID-19 in the interim, the recent declines in new claims for unemployment insurance, and the general improving of the economy, the PPP has to again be declared a success.”

One newly released economic indicator proves Rubio and his colleagues took the right steps in preventing an economic catastrophe.

Real gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 6.4% during the first quarter, “reflecting the continued economic recovery, reopening of establishments and continued government response related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis advised last week in its latest report.

The federal agency cited PPP as an important contributor to the economic recovery.

“Corporate profits increased 12.7% in the first quarter from one year ago,” according to BEA researchers. “Profits were impacted by provisions from the Paycheck Protection Program.”

Strong Statement

The congressional appropriations brought a measure of personal relief that Mike and Gina Buell never anticipated a year ago when they shut down the dining rooms at their City Fire American Oven & Bar restaurants at Lake Sumter Landing and Brownwood.

“It gave me peace of mind,” Mike Buell said about the loans he secured with the help of Marci Duke, vice president and community banking manager at Citizens First Bank. “Marci was so very helpful and supportive. She was fantastic in helping us out.”

Those dollars enabled the Buells to retain a significant number of their employees.

“It was very stressful in the beginning, because we weren’t sure what we were up against,” Buell said. “It allowed us to regain some normalcy to cover payroll with lesser amounts of sales. It gave us the opportunity to retain the staff.”

Buell, too, attributes the PPP dollars and loyalty of City Fire customers for his company’s economic recovery.

“Yes, we are recovering,” he said. “Sales aren’t where they were. That’s expected. But the way things are going right now, and God willing, no more spikes or issues, I think 2022 is going to be great for the industry and great for The Villages.”

Sales also took a fortuitous turn in mid-May, when Gov. Ron DeSantis dined at the Brownwood restaurant, Buell said.

“Since the day DeSantis came in to lunch, without a mask, that made a strong statement, and everyone appears to have said, ‘Let’s go,’ even though our staff still wears masks,” he said.

Just Family

Even at the darkest point a year ago, Laufersky witnessed a level of helpfulness and compassion that inspires her to this day.

It started when her bookkeeper, Shannon Barley, got everything in order for Sammy Joe’s first round of PPP loans and then worked tirelessly to submit the loan application with the help of Courtney Gage, vice president and commercial banking officer at Citizens First Bank, Laufersky said.

“They pulled everything together so quickly, and the turnaround was amazing,” she said.

That turnaround enabled Laufersky to keep her entire staff, including longtime employees like Amy Powell and her daughters, Julie Kendrick and Michelle Powell.

“We’re talking about a core group of employees who have worked for me for years,” she said. “These are moms with kids. Moms with kids, mortgages and rent.”

Kitchen and service staff quickly shifted to take-out meals, and customers eagerly responded, Laufersky said.

Customers understood the employees plight so much that Laufersky witnessed instances that she can barely speak about without choking back tears.

“Some of them brought in their stimulus checks to give to the girls who weren’t making their money,” she said.

The quick turnaround even gave Laufersky an opportunity to express her appreciation in a special way to Kendrick, a nursing student worried over how to pay for her education without the tips she needed to pay for it.

“I gave Julie money out of pocket to do her online classes; now she’s a nurse,” Laufersky said with pride. “Michelle has two kids who go to The Villages Charter School, and we did school for them here at Sammy Joe’s. I’ve known these girls since they worked for me as bus girls when I owned the Sonrise Cafe. We’re just family. And now we’re doing really well.”

Specialty Editor David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.