After the COVID-19 pandemic closed her St. Paul art studio and storefront in March, Lori Greene started applying for every grant she could find. Months passed with no success.
“It was definitely terrifying,” said Greene, who owns Mosaic on a Stick, off Snelling Avenue. “I would apply specifically for things for women artists of color and small business owners … and they’d write me back two weeks later: ‘Thank you for applying, we only had 10 grants of this sort and we had 550 applicants.’ ”
After applying twice, she learned July 16 that she’d been chosen to receive a $2,500 grant for Midway-area businesses struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. The money “was gone right away,” Greene said — but it meant she was able to pay her four staff members.
Mosaic on a Stick is one of nearly 70 businesses that received grants through the Neighbors United Funding Collaborative this spring and summer. Established as a community benefit fund to support the area around Allianz Field, it has become a source of emergency assistance for small businesses in St. Paul affected by the pandemic and, later, the unrest following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Though the $2,500 grants went fast, business owners say they made a difference at a time when their future was far from certain.
“When you have to shut your business down and you have employees and you don’t even know how to support yourself, let alone if you’re going to be able to support your employees … $2,500 does actually go a long way,” said Dawn Pivec, owner of Merriam Park Acupuncture.
The Neighbors United Funding Collaborative faced its own challenges this summer, when many of the group’s white volunteers resigned following accusations that they were capitalizing on Floyd’s death.
The remaining members have since launched Small Business Economic Justice Grants for businesses damaged during the riots. More than $340,000 is available for at least 21 businesses to do repairs and replace inventory; another $500,000 is available for at least 10 destroyed businesses to either rebuild or move.
While other organizations are doing similar work, the Neighbors United Funding Collaborative aims to serve a niche of very small businesses — those with $2 million or less in annual revenue — that may not have qualified for other pandemic-related aid, said Isabel Chanslor, a member of the collaborative.
“That’s kind of the sweet spot that we’re in,” she said.
Eleven businesses have applied in the two weeks since the new round of grants launched, and so far one has been selected, Chanslor said. The collaborative is continuing to raise money, she said, and is aiming for a total of $1.5 million for damaged and destroyed businesses.
Meanwhile, businesses throughout the area are bracing for winter and the specter of another wave of the virus.
Mosaic on a Stick reopened in July, but classes aren’t in session because there’s not enough space to distance, Greene said. Staff are focusing on public art commissions and making mosaic kits for purchase, she said.
St. Paul Ballet on Fairview Avenue got through the shutdown with help, in part, from a $2,500 Neighbors United grant — enough to cover about a quarter of monthly operating costs, said Executive Director Lori Gleason. The studio reopened at 25% capacity this summer, she said, and is getting by with a combination of socially distanced and online classes.
Work also continues at the nonprofit CoMotion Center for Movement, a collaboration between St. Paul Ballet, Element Gym and other local groups. CoMotion provides classes and other services intended to bring disparate communities together “and really address the commonalities that we have,” Gleason said.
But another lockdown may not be survivable.
“We feel like we’re really poised to be a great help to the future,” she said, “but only if we stay alive.”