With the City proposing to spend its largest chunk of federal coronavirus relief funds on workforce development, a City Council committee on Tuesday reviewed a plan for spending that could also include grants for San Antonio’s small businesses.

Ahead of an expected City Council vote Thursday on the COVID-19 Community Recovery and Resiliency Plan, the council’s Economic and Workforce Development Committee examined details of the largest piece of the $191 million spending proposal.

On May 28, City officials proposed helping residents and businesses recover from the economic impact of the pandemic by funding $80 million for workforce development, $50.5 million for housing security, $33.1 million for small-business support, and nearly $27.3 million for digital inclusion.

The coronavirus pandemic and resulting business shutdowns have led to more than 130,000 Bexar County residents filing for unemployment benefits since early March. “This virus has exposed massive disparities in educational attainment, life expectancy, access to the internet, and economic opportunity,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in his State of the City address on Wednesday evening. “These problems need to be taken head-on, now, if we’re to emerge as a stronger city.”

The workforce development plan detailed for committee members is based on four guiding principles, said Alejandra Lopez, director of economic development for the City of San Antonio, starting with ensuring “continued COVID-19-related public health and safety, building resiliency and fostering economic stability for our health, our nonprofit, and for our businesses.”

Lopez said the plan would emphasize equity; integrate local, state, and federal funding and resources; and ensure households and businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic have the resources and tools “to become financially resilient and better prepared to withstand future economic challenges.”

Much of the plan was based on previous studies and reports, she added, including the Comprehensive Domestic Violence Prevention Plan, the 2019 Status of Poverty Report, the Status of Women in San Antonio report, and others.

The $80 million will fund workforce development for 10,000 participants, with $10 million spent on temporary child care support for working families and $70 million on workforce training support, career navigation and placement, education and training, and participant stipends.

The City would partner with Workforce Solutions Alamo for enrollment and referral services, and Project Quest and its partners for wraparound support and case management.

The budget provides $8 million for those services, plus career navigation and job placement opportunities that could be conducted by SA Works, a workforce development organization; Biomed SA, an organization to promote the city’s biomedical industry; and the Cybersecurity Council, an advocacy group of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, as well as $14 million for education and training provided by the Alamo Colleges.

It also sets aside $48 million in funding for stipends – $15 an hour for 30 hours per week of training – for people who participate in the workforce development programs.

The committee also reviewed a plan for how the proposed $33.1 million would be used for small business support.

“The most significant portion of the funding would actually be associated with grants,” Lopez said, recommending that microlender LiftFund administer a grant fund totaling $27 million aimed at assisting 1,000 small businesses. “Our goal is to have this funding, distributed to our eligible small businesses by the end of September 2020.”

The plan also calls for funding four small-business support hubs – the Westside Development Corporation (WDC), San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE), Southside First, and the Maestro Entrepreneurship Center – as well as a virtual hub, Launch SA.

City staffers recommended additional funds for a door-to-door tactic aimed at reaching up to 5,000 microbusinesses, such as those with five or fewer employees. The initiative would be conducted by the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation (SAEDF), LiftFund’s Women’s Business Center, and Launch SA, as well as WDC, SAGE, Southside First, and Centro San Antonio. SAEDF would coordinate the overall effort.

“This was a very common theme that we saw in the Business and Employment Working Group, and it almost mirrors the wraparound support that we see that is necessary for a lot of our residents … on the microbusiness side,” Lopez said. “So we’re recommending a rather collaborative and comprehensive approach here.”

The Business and Employment Working Group and the Economic Transition Team were two of five working groups appointed by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff to focus on issues in need of immediate attention due to the public health and economic crisis brought on by the new coronavirus. Both groups developed a set of recommendations, which Lopez also presented to the committee.

Of the $33.1 million earmarked for small business support in the Recovery and Resiliency Plan, the remainder of the funds should go to local arts-related, nonprofit organizations, according to the proposal. A total of $2.6 million would be spent “specifically for organizations where we know they’ve been severely impacted as well,” Lopez said.

A series of measurable goals are also baked into the plan, including one that states 100 percent of small business grants will be disbursed to eligible businesses by September, and 50 percent of businesses receiving grants will hire or rehire employees.

Committee Chairwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzalez (D5) both raised questions about wages in relation to workforce development.

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“I think the whole idea is that we are increasing wages for people and putting people in jobs that provide living wages, and hopefully that training combined with a stipend will allow people to advance, but also really find a way to encourage the private sector, especially those service industries, to increase their wages,” Gonzalez said. “I think that’s obviously going to be a big discussion for us all.”

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) requested greater clarification on how the door-to-door outreach would be conducted as well as how arts funding would be managed.

“I would not feel comfortable with it all going to just your typical huge nonprofit,” she said. “Although I believe in the work of nonprofits, I think that local artists could benefit and so I’d like to see a strategy of how we’re targeting local independent artists and how we’re helping them.”

If the council approves the proposed plan on Thursday, Lopez said, City staffers would then begin to work more closely with the organizations targeted for funds to develop more detailed plans, determine how best to activate and track funding, and about eligibility and expectations of small businesses that receive grants.

On Tuesday, a coalition of organizations that includes the Texas Organizing Project, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, MOVE Texas Action Fund, and 20 other groups sent a letter to council members requesting a delay in voting for the Recovery and Resiliency Plan to allow for public input.

During the briefing, Councilman Manny Peláez (D8) raised the issue of delaying the vote and asked what impact that would have on people.

Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras said there is a sense of urgency. “These folks have been waiting for a long time, particularly the small businesses that are trying to get going,” Contreras said, adding that if the council approves the plan Thursday, the earliest they could begin the programs would be in July.

“[But] that money is critical to get out to the community right now,” he said. “Part of our focus has been on the areas that have not been able to receive other funding. So they’re left on their own right now and they’d still be waiting, and that’s a concern.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.