At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Penn made the decision to provide $5 million in emergency financial support to employees in need ($1 million), the PHL COVID-19 Fund ($500,000), third-party full-time and part-time contract workers ($1 million), independently-owned retail tenants ($1.2 million in rent abatements), to the Enterprise Center of West Philadelphia ($100,000), and University City small businesses ($250,000).
“As you started seeing relief bills, the stars started aligning for us that we needed to be engaged with the stress that was going to start emanating from COVID,” says Craig Carnaroli, executive vice president. “This was late March, before we understood the full economic fallout, and there were a couple signals that ultimately were important for us to recognize.”
Signals of distress, of course, were coming from all angles: employees, nonprofits that support the University’s mission, businesses that are the lifeblood of the community, and more. One key partnership from the get-go of the crisis, he says, was with University City District (UCD), which communicated stories of what local businesses were struggling with. In collaboration with UCD President Matthew Bergheiser, they arranged grants for small businesses in the community that UCD then awarded and distributed.
“The real impetus was recognizing we’re a neighbor of those larger neighborhoods, and it’s us trying to support those who support us throughout the year,” Carnaroli adds.
“It has been a tremendous help and I’m so grateful for the grant,” says Franchon Pryor, owner of Hair Vyce Studio on Baltimore Avenue and president of the Baltimore Avenue Business Association. “It really helped me get through the next month; I was very unaware it would be this far out as far as reopening, so it helped me to be able to pay my rent for the salon with the funds I received.
“We had no idea a pandemic was going to hit and it’s an interesting time to be an African-American female entrepreneur and a business owner, period—this has definitely been a challenging time.”
Grants were awarded to 135 West Philadelphia retailers and restaurants—a process that Pryor described as refreshingly simple in a time of high stress. These were specifically targeted to businesses that make $250,000 to $1 million per year in revenue—“Those are many of our anchors along our retail corridors,” Bergheiser explains. The idea was to help those without access to other forms of capital and who live in West Philadelphia with a significant number of employees.
It was three weeks from the conception of the grants to the issuing of cash.
“I think the whole effort was transformative,” says Bergheiser. “We were in the early days of the COVID crisis and small businesses—particularly retailers and restaurants—were being devastated and this began to bridge the cash crunch they were experiencing.”
UCD pivoted to raising $50,000 from philanthropic sources for its Retail Restart Fund, and issued small grants to local businesses to cover preparations for reopening.
Emergency funds also extended to third-party contract workers, who could receive $1,500 as a tax-free grant through an application. Bon Appetit dining workers received pay continuation through the end of the spring semester. Penn employees who earn at or below $70,000 were also eligible for $1,500 tax-free grants; altogether, 1,200 employees and contractors received financial assistance. Grants were also issued to 300 social service nonprofits in Philadelphia and South Jersey through a partnership with the Philadelphia Foundation, the City of Philadelphia, and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.
Ed Datz, executive director of real estate of Facilities and Real Estate Services, says there were about 60 retailers and food and beverage operators who received rent abatement for University-owned properties through June. It was offered to those businesses without an application process.
“We were looking at a multipronged strategy to help them, and while we were communicating this we gave them access to some of our relationships to help them fill out paperwork to apply for the CARES Act,” says Datz.
Many of those helped were businesses facing zero revenues and relied on in-person campus operations for their business. The grants also assisted businesses that are vital to Penn’s workforce, like the Parent Infant Center, a daycare facility at 43rd and Spruce streets.
“We did it to give them the maximum possibility of viability,” he explains. “If you think about our environment and what we’ve provided with retail in 30 years or so, it’s about adding quality of life and goods and services to the community. That’s the primary drive to why we’re being proactive in this challenging time.”
About 17 businesses stayed open during the shutdowns to provide service to essential personnel, he says, but there has generally been a significant drop in the usual pace of business. They now must prepare for a new normal, which also comes at a cost.
Ultimately, says Carnaroli, the motivation behind the $5 million was to think of and support three groups: neighboring communities, Philadelphia at-large, and Penn employees and contractors. All of whom contribute to a larger community and ecosystem.
“We’re a neighbor in a large neighborhood, and while we have the largest house, if you will, we have neighbors and they are part of what makes Penn and University City vibrant, and this is no more than trying to be a good neighbor and trying to anticipate what these needs would be,” says Carnaroli. “And rather than one-offing them, creating a holistic approach so that maybe we can be a model of inspiration for others.”