Payroll aid recharges Villages businesses

Fred Karimipour, president and CEO of FMK Restaurant Group, gives a tour of the Chop House at Lake Sumter kitchen to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami.

Just days after voting to extend the nation’s Paycheck Protection Program, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami,  made a stop in The Villages Monday to see for himself how the program helped save businesses and jobs locally. The bipartisan small-business loan initiative he co-authored around a year ago served as a rebound catalyst for businesses rocked by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. The paycheck protection bill proposes to extend the coverage period to May 31. It rolled through the Senate this week by a 96-4 vote after earlier clearing the House by a 415-3 vote. It now awaits President Joe Biden’s signature. An extension would allow banks like Citizens First Bank in The Villages to continue its role in helping the small business community navigate its collective long-recovery path. The bank processed 1,087 PPP loans in 2020 valued at $109 million in funding and has 269 applications for $31 million since the beginning of the year, according to bank officials. 

Community banks like Citizens First made the PPP initiative work, Rubio said.

“We knew we would have to rely on the community banks and non-traditional lenders to make the program work,” he said. “We knew we would have to rely heavily on community banks to get them to buy in and be a part of it. And they did. Without those banks stepping forward, the program never would have gotten off the ground. It wouldn’t have worked.”

It’s effect was felt as early as May 2020 when the bank reported it helped save more than 10,000 jobs. The federal program and the local lender has continued to provide assistance.

The Villages would have been a far different place without the PPP initiative, Rubio said.

“Some of the damage would have been catastrophic,” he said. “Some businesses would never have come back. There would be job losses, business losses. You would have a real estate contagion with storefronts emptying out, no rents being paid on them. My pitch always was that we can either keep people attached to work or we can have them go on unemployment. Either way you’re going to pay for it. So, you might as well pay for it through their employer, and provide that employer the ability to keep them around. So many businesses in America made it through that uncertainty with PPP. If not, you would have lost many of them. It would have taken a generation to rebuild the backbone of American business.”

Supporting PPP wasn’t an easy decision for a senator grounded on conservative values and a devotion to a free-market system.

“I wish we never had to do it,” he told the Daily Sun. “It’s not a program I would have been in support of in normal times. But, when we went into this time a year ago, we realized this country had a history of bailing out big industry in times of trouble. What we’ve never done is provide assistance to small businesses.”

Brad Weber, the community banks’s executive vice president and chief lending officer, said PPP has been a godsend.

“We are very fortunate to have a representative like Marco Rubio who understands the importance of the business community, and was instrumental in bringing SBA dollars to our state,” Weber said.

One of Weber’s clients, restaurateur Fred Karimipour, echoed that sentiment during a brief meeting Monday with Rubio at The Chop House, one of eight restaurants Karimipour owns and operates in The Villages.

“I’m so thrilled the senator is here today to listen to our concerns and what we’ve gone through as an industry,” said Karimipour, president and CEO of FMK Restaurant Group. “I’m just so appreciative that he cares enough to take the time to listen.”

The PPP loans Karimipour secured through The Villages community bank kept the majority of his workforce employed during a time when restaurant revenue soured.

“It helped 250 of my employees,” he said. “We were able to retain most of them during that difficult time. The timing of it was phenomenal. So, I’m so grateful for the senator’s work and his relentless drive to get this done.”

The loans from 2020 are still making an impact, Weber said.

“Of those 1,087 loans, we’ve had 752 submissions for forgiveness to the U.S. Small Business Administration, and $61 million has been approved for forgiveness,” he said. “That’s only on the first two rounds in 2020. We have a few in the pipeline; those that have not submitted for forgiveness. They’ve got a little bit of time. They’re not up against any immediate deadlines.”

Rubio, who served as chairman during the formation of the PPP initiative, said its the first of its kind.

“It’s a massive federal program; never done before,” he said. “No one had ever done a PPP loan before. It was a Herculean effort. It took a lot of hard work to make sure the regulations were being written in a way that was true to the law. In hindsight, it wasn’t a perfect program. That first bill by far was not only the most successful, but it also was one of the most dramatic government actions ever taken.”

The program worked as intended in The Villages, Weber said.

“We saw a very fast rebound with The Villages economy,” he said. “What a great place to be.”