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Co-op grocery stuck in limbo waiting for funds

Gary Williams — the Rev. Gary Williams, in actual fact — has no trouble envisioning the transition he hopes will soon take place inside a dimly lit, 8,700-square foot storefront.

“In this area, we’ll have a deli with made to order sandwiches,” he said, pointing toward a space near the front. “Meat counters along that wall. And a loading area there in the back.”

He knows the layout by heart. He and the Rev. Willard Bass Jr., a co-founder of the nonprofit SHARE Cooperative, have been planning for years the Harvest Market, a retail grocery in the West Salem Shopping Center.

They’ve jawboned, hustled and clawed to build a network of owner/members, community support and pledges for financial backing to attack a pressing problem — access to fresh, healthy products in a city plagued with food deserts.

The dominoes are lined up and ready to fall. But before they tumble, backers need local government to follow through with a public investment.

“We’re coming in with a solution,” Green said. “We’re not coming in with a problem asking somebody else to fix it. We’re frustrated. We’ve been laboring for about five years to create a solution to food insecurity.”

Methodical planning

Without specific directions, it’d be easy to miss SHARE’s office tucked behind the Great Wall Chinese restaurant off Academy Street.

And that’s fine with Williams, Bass and other supporters. They’d prefer for the large storefront around the corner to be the focal point of their efforts.

“The food market will be right in the middle of a gateway to the city,” Bass said. “All the traffic that comes through here on Peters Creek Parkway, the stadium up the hill.

“Right now we have an anchor store sitting empty in this shopping center, and we can fix that.”

The Harvest Market plan has its roots in a long-standing anti-racism project Bass guided for years. The idea, he said, evolved from disgraceful reports that listed Winston-Salem as one of the worst U.S. cities for food insecurity.

“We were the fifth largest (food deserts) in the nation,” Bass said. “Three years ago we had 11 food deserts mapped out. Now we have 22. It just got worse and worse.”

(A food desert, loosely defined, is a neighborhood far removed from groceries with fresh produce and nutritious ingredients for meals and a lack of reliable transportation to get to one. Cigarettes, sugary drinks and cheap beer are plentiful; apples and lettuce not so much.)

One way — the most direct — to help is to open up access. It’s a simple concept: Feed people, fill their stomachs and take away a major daily concern. Doing so frees up time and energy to tackle other issues.

Once Williams and Bass zeroed in on hunger, they set to work recruiting volunteers and small individual investors. It costs $100 to be a member-owner with access to nutrition seminars — and a share in the co-op market. Nearly 400 members have signed up already.

They drew up blueprints and methodically set about lining up grants, loans and pledges from foundations, community investment funds and charitable organizations to cover half of the estimated $2.3 million price tag.

At the same time, they set about setting up a network of local growers and producers to provide staples such as meat, dairy and baked goods, much of it organic and sustainably farmed. SHARE also identified local contractors to do the construction work.

“We’ve been very deliberate in putting all this together,” Williams said. “It’s economic development, investing in jobs and getting good food to people.”

Shovel-ready change

The plan proceeded on schedule through the fall of 2019. Organizers worked with the city and Academy Inc., the owners of the shopping center, to get access to a program called Revitalizing Urban Commercial Areas (RUCA).

Some $300,000 was allocated for sidewalks and parking lot improvements at the shopping center. The work got done and looks good.

An additional $330,000 was allocated to Academy Inc. for upfitting space for the Harvest Market, which city officials said in October would be paid out after construction documents were approved and work competitively bid. A similar amount could come from the county.

All signs pointed toward the market opening in spring. “Then COVID hit,” Williams said.

Tax collection and local government revenue streams slowed to a trickle. Budgets needed re-tooling and priorities had to be re-ordered. Some projects had to be delayed or put on indefinite hold.

It’s not difficult to imagine that inspections, permitting and bidding — already an arduous process — would slow down, too.

“Academy Inc. is the borrower, and SHARE is not obligated for the repayment of RUCA funds,” wrote Ken Millett, the city’s director of business inclusion and advancement. “At this point, no funds have been dispersed.”

Millett also noted that SHARE has applied for an additional $100,000 through the City’s Small Business Loan Program. A loan committee is reviewing the request and seeking more details on the project.

“We get that, we really do,” Williams said.

Still, the wait has become a source of frustration. If they can’t get access to RUCA money — and soon — pledges from foundations, nonprofits and other charitable organizations may dry up, too.

The first domino — public dollars — must fall before others follow suit.

“Without everybody joining, the party is in danger,” Williams said. “It feels kind of unfair.”

Bass agreed, and linked the push for a food co-op to the current climate.

“The connection, as I see it, is with all the civil unrest and talk about the demand for change,” he said. “What better change can we make right now than improving access to food?”

Rally-goers hear bevy of information at Saturday protest in Winston Square Park

Scattered throughout the Winston-Square Park amphitheater on a warm Saturday evening, dozens of masked activists heard from a multitude of speakers about the various social issues impacting communities of color in Winston-Salem.

Listening intently, a crowd of nearly 70 heard about an array of problems ranging from food insecurity and educational inequity to what some activists consider to be a dire lack of affordable health care in a rapidly gentrifying city.

The event, billed as a Community Unity rally, doubled as a food drive for various food pantries in the city. It was the first community event organized by Sara Hines, a stalwart at racial-injustice protests over the last several weeks.

“I’m really proud of the way it turned out,” Hines said.

Nearly every speaker was a person of color, and all of them spoke with conviction about the problems they’ve experienced firsthand in their lives, with the majority white crowd often cheering at the end of speeches.

Most speakers mentioned the need to register to vote and to elect strong Democratic candidates. When asked if Hines thought the city was ready for such change and policy, she said there’s no use in waiting for people to be ready.

“If you waited for everyone to be ready, I might still be in chains,” Hines, who is Black, said. “Change doesn’t happen when you’re ready, it happens when it’s needed.”

The speeches went on for over an hour before Calvin Peña and Brittany Battle made closing remarks and invited those still in attendance to march through downtown Winston-Salem. Peña told everyone gathered the march would remain on the sidewalks because it’s important to show police they could “protest the right way.”

Police arrested 20 protesters between Wednesday and Thursday for stepping into the street after being warned not to do it. All 20 protesters are charged with misdemeanor impeding traffic and all were released from custody on a written promise to appear in court.

The marchers, about 40 of them in total, went down Fourth Street — past diners and dog walkers — and onto Church Street before making stops outside of the Sheriff’s Office to draw attention to the death of John Neville.

Neville died in December due to a brain injury he received as a result of his time in custody at the Forsyth County Jail, according to an autopsy report. Five detention officers and a nurse at the jail are charged with involuntary manslaughter for their alleged roles in his death. It wasn’t until seven months after Neville died that information surrounding his death was made public in the Winston-Salem Journal.

Standing outside of the sheriff’s office and facing the jail Saturday evening, protesters shouted “F- — the police.” Peña, who is among the 20 arrested earlier this week for their acts of civil disobedience, called for an end to all policing.

“There is no recourse, there is no reform,” Peña said into a bullhorn.

Protesters began chanting “Abolish the police” outside of the county jail, which is operated by the sheriff’s office, before making their way back downtown and eventually disbanding.

Federal PPP loans serve as lifeline, conduit for change

Pine Hall Brick Co. has learned how to detect and survive financial challenges in its 98-year history.

The family-owned Winston-Salem company weathered the Great Depression, put its brick-making operations on hold for most of World War II, and expanded its reach in the Southeast during the recessions of 2001-03 and 2008-11.

Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic has become perhaps Pine Hall’s hurdle.

It has threatened to upend the bulk of its commercial, higher-education and residential business, and compel major layoffs and furloughs from its work force of more than 300 people.

Pine Hall’s plight is shared by most small businesses in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina, including those considered as an essential business, like Pine Hall.

The federal Paycheck Protection Program didn’t necessarily represent a lifeline for Pine Hall, as it did for many businesses.

Rather, the loan of between $2 million and $5 million served more to stabilize Pine Hall and give it time to redirect toward other revenue sources, said Walt Steele, its chief operating officer.

“We recognized pretty early it could be pretty bad if things began to be shut down” to contain the coronavirus, Steele said.

“We were looking in early March at furloughing a pretty significant portion of the workforce or a reduction in force, plus we discussed salary reductions for key managers,” he said.

“Still, the hope was a short-term shutdown, perhaps a few weeks, and we were considered as an essential business.”

Business drying up

However, by the time the PPP program became a reality in early April, Pine Hall recognized how devastating the pandemic could be, Steele said.

“It was becoming pretty bleak,” he said. “While we had some ongoing projects; you couldn’t go out and do customer visits. There weren’t many new homes being started in April and May.

“There was a concern that everybody is going to have to fend for themselves and perhaps take some pretty drastic measures.”

Steele said that even though Pine Hall “was aggressive about pursuing its PPP loan,” it took weeks and a change in lender to secure funding.

The loan with Pinnacle Financial Partners Inc. came in time for Pine Hall to retain most hourly employees and bring back a small number of salaried employees who had been furloughed.

“We have honored what we believe is the spirit of the program, to keep employees on our payroll even when we didn’t have a lot of productive work for them to do at times,” Steele said.

“It allowed us to take a deep breath, that we have the time and capital to digest the way the brick market is headed while keeping our employees safe and healthy.”

Steele said that by the time the eight weeks ended, business had started to pick up in June.

“There’s still a lot of uncertainty, we’re still waiting on guidance for loan forgiveness, still a lot of projects on hold that will affect us more in 2021 and the longer term,” he said.

“We’re really still taking it month by month.”

Everything changed

The Budd Group of Winston-Salem applied and received a PPP loan worth between $5 million and $10 million.

It is one of five Forsyth County businesses in the top loan category. It was approved in the second round of loans.

“The PPP loan was critical,” said Joe Budd, the president of the janitorial, maintenance and landscaping services company. The company said in its application that it was protecting the maximum of 500 jobs.

“All of our business metrics changed in March when the economy began shutting down,” Budd said. “We lost a significant amount of business immediately, and we’re still feeling that impact today.

“The PPP loan allowed The Budd Group to retain our essential frontline employees, who are engaged in the fight against COVID-19.”

Budd said the company was able to free up money to invest in new equipment, including four hospital-grade UV light disinfection machines.

“They are expensive, but will be an essential tool in the ongoing fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” Budd said. “Our supply chain has been stressed with increasing costs.

“Disinfection services are a significant part of our daily work now.”

Budd said the pandemic has required the company to “pivot our business. You really have to reimagine what you do and how you serve your clients, almost on a daily basis.”

“Most manufacturing facilities we service have restarted, while health clubs and fitness centers are trying to restart, but slowly,” he said. “Education is trying to restart, but each school has a different plan, and we know the fall will bring us new challenges.

“It could take several years for the economy to fully recover.”

Online focus

The parent operator of Greensboro Day School received a PPP loan worth $1.9 million.

“The PPP loan made it possible for us to maintain full employment” of 150, said Tracie Catlett, GDS’ head of school.” In that sense, it was a lifeline for our employees and their families.

GDS was able to reserve existing funding for new safety accommodations for the 2020-21 school year, Catlett said.

“GDS is making significant infrastructure investments, such as Swivl Technology, to support all families who choose to stay home or who need to self-quarantine,” Catlett said.

Swivl technology allows students to virtually join their class in progress.

“The school will leverage this technology beyond the GDS student body and has opened up enrollment to students in the United States and internationally,” Catlett said.

“GDS is also investing in Global Plasma solutions, a technology used by airlines and hospitals to better manage the air quality.”

Trying to stay afloat

A Winston-Salem nonprofit trying to swim through choppy economic and organizational issues is IFB Solutions, the nation’s largest employer of those who are blind or visually impaired.

Although IFB’s three manufacturing facilities are considered as an essential business, it has not been able to run at full capacity because of the pandemic. It makes prescription eyeglasses, textile fabrics (including face masks and military tactical gear), mattresses, office supplies, contract cutting and fulfillment services.

IFB said in a statement the PPP loan “is enabling us to keep paying our dedicated and courageous workforce who are manufacturing essential products.”

“We were able to focus our philanthropic efforts on critical supporting programs, such as employee training. With proper training, employees in departments that temporarily closed were able to move to departments, like mattresses and textiles.”

During 2019, IFB lost 90 of 137 employees attached to its optical laboratories when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs ended three prescription eyewear contracts as part of a dispute of which of two groups should have production priority. Of the overall jobs, 76 were held by IFB employees who are blind and 15 by veterans.

U.S. House Resolution 4920 was introduced in November with U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-5th, as a co-sponsor. The bill would reinstate two of the three IFB optical contracts by creating an exception in the VA contracting process.

The bill was approved by the House in December and by the U.S. Senate on March 12. Because the Senate added an amendment, the House must approve the change or not agree to set up a concurrence committee; no action has been taken as of Friday.

“We had hoped to regain some of our optical work through commercial and retail sales, but many optical shops were closed until very recently, including our own Twenty200 Eyewear optical shop here in Winston-Salem,” the nonprofit said.

Meeting community needs

The nonprofit Shepherd’s Center of Greater Winston-Salem Inc. received in late April a PPP loan worth between $350,000 and $1 million. Among its goals was the retention of its 12 employees.

Sam Matthews, the nonprofit’s executive director, said its loan was proportionally as valuable as those providing millions of dollars.

“It helped us retain our staff by covering payroll costs in May and June, as well as assisted with approved administrative expenses, such as telephone, internet and utility costs,” Matthews said. “We plan to use all of our loan and request forgiveness by September.”

Without the loan, Matthews said the nonprofit would have had to draw on its financial reserves or a line of credit.

“We felt we could not continue serving the community without our staff and operations,” Matthews said.

“Since we had to postpone, and then cancel, our spring annual fundraising event and the loss of that income, the loan was very significant for us to keep operating without interruption.”

Salem Academy and College still was recovering from significant financial challenges when the brunt of the pandemic began to be experienced in the Triad.

The Winston-Salem private college for women and high school for girls had completed a $10 million fundraising campaign that helped resolve several financial issues that led Salem’s accrediting agency to put the school on probation for 18 months.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges removed Salem from probationary status in December and deemed the college to be in full compliance with its financial standards.

“Salem is grateful for the substantial help the PPP provided us,” said Susan Henking, the institution’s interim president.

“It helped ensure that we were able to maintain our workforce during the difficult months of May and June.

“In the face of economic uncertainty, the PPP enabled us to keep student success at the forefront of our mission.”

Salem received a PPP loan of between $2 million and $5 million.