RI helped businesses scrape by during COVID. What about those that didn't make it?

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The owners of a specialized auto parts store that closed permanently because of the pandemic want to know why Rhode Island isn’t making some of the billions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid available to businesses that didn’t make it, but still have debts to pay off.

“I’ve never lived through a pandemic, so I never even for a moment thought [having the business fail] would be a possibility,” said Rochell Tice, who had owned Pipe Dreams in Warwick since 2004 with her now ex-husband, James Tice.

 

“The reality is there are many businesses that are not going to make it. They can’t be forgotten,” James Tice said.

The Rhode Island Commerce Corporation carved out several programs last year to infuse cash into struggling businesses or help them pivot in how they operated through an adaptation grant initiative. The agency distributed millions from Rhode Island’s $1.25-billion federal allocation to help the state mitigate the effects of coronavirus.

The Tices have scraped together enough to pay off all but $34,000 of a $250,000 loan. James Tice even used a $20,000 annuity he received when his mother died last fall, but they say their bank refuses to budge on the balance. Add in other creditors and their debt total is about $100,000. James Tice has received so many legal summonses, he is on a first-name basis with the person serving them.

"It was the pandemic that really wiped us out,” he said. “Up until then we were good with the bank. We were even in a deferral state when the pandemic first hit. We were in contact with them; it’s not like we turned our back on them."

 

The Tices say the state has told them there are plenty of grants available if they want to open a new business, but so far have had no luck securing funding to close the books on their store.

The Restore Rhode Island grant program was focused on sustaining small businesses that were finding ways to operate during the pandemic — and on retaining as many jobs as possible for Rhode Islanders,” Commerce spokesman Matt Sheaff said in a statement to The Hummel Report. “That's why a main requirement of program eligibility was that a business had to be open or be in the process of reopening.”

Sheaff added that with a new round of federal aid coming to Rhode Island, the state may rethink that strategy.

A business setback, and then COVID hits

For more than a decade, Pipe Dreams had been a destination for auto enthusiasts looking for replacement exhaust and emission systems — wholesale and retail  — at its store on Toll Gate Road in Warwick.

 

The business was doing well enough that the Tices decided in 2016 to expand, buying another auto parts business in South Easton, Massachusetts. They took out a $250,000 loan and put up personal guarantees to secure it. But the second store didn’t perform as well as they had hoped and the Tices pulled the plug on the operation in November 2019.

 

“We were in the process of rebuilding and narrowing our focus again,” Rochell Tice said, adding that they had dipped into the company’s reserves while trying to bounce back. Meanwhile, the landlord of their Warwick location told them he was going to knock down the building and they’d need to vacate. They had difficulty finding alternate commercial space.

 

Then the pandemic hit and everything shut down. Materials, many from China, dried up, along with sales. James believes he contracted COVID, but never confirmed it because the state was not doing extensive testing at the time. Since business was slow, he closed up the store and stayed at home, recovering.

 

Closing was not a difficult choice. They just didn’t know at the time that it would be permanent.

 

“We needed to shut down to let our employees get on to unemployment so they could get a paycheck and feed their families,” Rochell Tice said. Some had been with the company since it opened and they could make as much, or more, on unemployment with the added $600 federal benefit, than they were making at the store.

 

The Tices initially were able to defer payments to the bank in the early months of the pandemic. But their long-term prospects for survival were bleak: no one was travelling, let alone working on their cars.

Facing personal bankruptcy

James Tice went back to work last summer, bringing back one employee. After two or three days of calling customers who had no interest in buying anything, he realized it was hopeless.

 

Their landlord was understanding at first, but then told them they’d have to be out of the Warwick building by the end of October. They scrambled to sell the remaining inventory at a fraction of what it was worth. Whatever was left would be demolished with the building.

 

The Tices separated in 2016, but remained business partners. The divorce called for him to get two-thirds of the business and for her to get a third. In the eyes of their creditors both are owners. Rochell has an outside job, but Pipe Dreams was James’s sole source of income and he is now facing personal bankruptcy.

 

“Bankruptcy is not palatable to me,” he said. “It’s not something I ever thought I’d be doing at 55 years old.”

 

Rochell Tice said there are many other businesses in Rhode Island facing the same dilemma.

 

Sheaff, the Commerce spokesman said: “We have previously considered the provision of funding for the receivership process — helping businesses work out their scenarios through the courts. With the upcoming arrival of more federal stimulus dollars, we plan to revisit that option and will look into other possibilities for businesses that have ceased operations for now.”

 

The Tices say they just want to clear their debt and move on. And Rochell is angry because the bank that financed her loan made millions of dollars in processing fees, handling loan applications for the Paycheck Protection Program.

 

“They’ve gotten a lot of money from the government. Isn’t some portion of it — even if they don’t give me the support — earmarked for the people and businesses that can’t pay them?”

 

The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to HummelReport.org. Reach Jim at Jim@HummelReport.org.