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Small Business Administration opens recovery centers to aid businesses affected by Maryland bridge collapse, port closure

Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/TNS

BALTIMORE — Nearly a week after the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, Dundalk business owners began grappling with the hit that the catastrophe may take on their businesses.

“When the bridge went down, my business completely stopped,” said Ryan Roberson, 35, owner of Robee Trucking and Robee Logistics. “Nothing is coming in the port and nothing is going out.”

Roberson stopped by the Business Recovery Center in Dundalk, one of two locations opened Monday by the U.S. Small Business Administration to help merchants impacted by the closure of the Port of Baltimore.

He said he’s considering applying for one of the 30-year disaster relief loans available for up to $2 million and with interest rates at or below 4%. Applications will be accepted through Dec. 31, and it is possible the deadline might be extended, according to an SBA fact sheet.

Roberson said that competition among trucking companies is fierce for the remaining shipments at Baltimore’s port.

“There’s a bidding war going on,” he said, adding that competition had driven the price of a truck delivery from Baltimore to Norfolk, Virginia, from $1,500 to $750 virtually overnight. Subtract $350 for the cost of fuel, and that leaves just $400 for the driver’s salary and other expenses.

The recovery centers in Dundalk (11 Center Place) and Canton (1501 S. Clinton St.) will be open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The centers can also help workers apply for unemployment insurance — an option that Roberson, who has five employees, hopes to avoid.

“The last day we had any work was today,” he said. “I’m trying to keep people on the payroll, but it’s hard. I’m hoping that the SBA will help.”

The community development organization Dundalk Renaissance has gone door to door in the neighborhood to alert business owners about federal and state aid programs.

“We’ve lost a lot of customers who used to come across the bridge to bowl in tournaments and leagues,” said Mark Berends, general manager of Pinland Bowling Lanes.

“We’re worried, but we just have to hope that people can find alternate ways to get here. We’re going to try to muddle through until the situation gets resolved.”

Berends said Pinland Bowling will consider applying for aid programs ranging from rent relief to a low-cost loan to remodel the popular bowling center, which has existed in its current location since 1951.

“Some of the things they’re talking about seem as though they will be able to help us,” he said. “We hope people will realize we are still open and ready for any bowlers who might come in.”

Mohammad Hussain, 35, owner of the Tobacco & Cell Phone Convenience Store, said he’s already beginning to feel the loss of his regular customers, who in good times spent between $100 and $200 a week at his corner store, which sells everything from perfumes to sunglasses to cigarettes, and also provides phone repair.

Hussain has owned his convenience store for seven years, and while he’s worried about his own business, he’s also worried about his regulars.

“Some of my customers are telling me that they are about to lose their jobs,” he said. “They have maybe two weeks of work left.”

Though just a handful of business owners stopped by during the first afternoon that the Dundalk recovery center was open, Tasha Gresham-James, executive director of Dundalk Renaissance, is certain that foot traffic will increase over the next few weeks and months.

“After any tragedy, people bury their heads in the sand at first,” she said. “But any business that relied on the Key Bridge to bring people to Dundalk is going to see a decrease in customers.”

Yvette Jeffery, public affairs specialist for the SBA, isn’t worried that she won’t hear from the big corporations. She just hopes that small, mom-and-pop businesses will be as willing to reach out for assistance.

“Our business is keeping you in business,” she said. “The sooner you come in, the easier it will be for us to help you.”