Rent is due, no cash coming in: Midvale strip mall tenants plead for relief in COVID-19 crisis

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Surrounded by other small business owners, Doug Jardine owner of Color My Nails Salon, talks about the impact COVID-19 is having on small businesses, during. news conference at his salon in Midvale, Wednesday, March 25, 2020.

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The anguish of Utah’s small businesses crippled by the coronavirus crisis was again on emotional display Wednesday, as a handful of Midvale merchants begged for relief.

With no cash coming in and rent due, shop owners in a small strip mall on East Fort Union Boulevard said their businesses are down dramatically in light of public health orders for social distancing to slow the virus’ spread.

“We have a grocery store, a nail salon, a tanning salon, a restaurant and a guy who sells ink cartridges,” said Doug Jardine, co-owner of Color My Nails Salon. “This is a diverse group, no different than any other strip mall in the nation.”

Jardine said his shop would have been humming at 1 p.m. just two weeks ago, with up to a dozen nail technicians hard at work. He choked up Wednesday during a homespun news conference held at the salon and broadcast on Facebook, pointing to its now-empty stalls.

“Business is down at least 85% and business is going to be down 100%,” Jardine said, his voice wavering as he stood with fellow mall tenants. “This scenario is playing out in hundreds of thousands of small businesses in Utah and nationwide.”

Jardine’s neighbor in the mall, Steve Vincent, owner of Treasure Valley Tanning, said his store is losing money every day.

“We’ll take a $30,000 hit this month and next month will be even worse,” Vincent said.

Asked Jardine: “So what do we do?”

As the COVID-19 emergency widened in recent weeks and mall foot traffic declined, he and other store owners located in Fort Place sought a break on April’s rent from the property’s manager, Utah-based Woodbury Corp.

The answer: “It’s not the landlord’s responsibility to take on the business risk of our tenants,” a Woodbury official told them via email.

“We’re not asking for that,” Jardine countered. Tenants instead sought a one-month delay or discount on rent, “so that we can outlast this stupid virus and still be in business when everything is said and done,” he said. “That’s all we want."

Woodbury spokeswoman Amanda Butterfield said Wednesday the company manages that Midvale mall and dozens of other commercial sites across Utah and adjacent states on behalf of their owners. So far, she said, those landlords “are receiving no flexibility from their mortgage lenders” and that banks commonly prevent landlords from even modifying their tenant payments without prior approval.

An official with the Utah Bankers Association said last week banks in the Beehive State were well capitalized going into the COVID-19 emergency and would offer loan modification plans for their customers, in light of business losses due to the pandemic and steps taken to contain it.

In the meantime, Butterfield said, Woodbury is not placing any of its tenants in default for lack of payment “at this time.”

“This is uncharted territory for all involved,” Butterfield said of the emergency, “and we are all in this together as we seek to find solutions to get the economy up and running again.”

She and others pointed to a series of new business loans made available through federal aid and economic stimulus packages now before Congress. Portions of those bills target small businesses specifically, to help them maintain payroll and pay rent and other operating costs.

Salt Lake City recently launched a $1 million package of zero-interest loans to small businesses harmed by COVID-19, but it’s unclear if Midvale will offer its 1,300 business owners similar relief. Attempts to reach that city’s economic development director on Wednesday were successful.

Utah’s newly released plan for economic recovery from the coronavirus also emphasizes low-interest loans and encouraging dislocated workers to apply for unemployment benefits as the state’s works between now and June to ease this urgent phase of the outbreak and stabilize Utah’s economy.

And in an online briefing late Tuesday, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said businesses with less than 500 workers will be able to borrow up to two and a half times their biweekly payroll to pay workers, rents and other expenses.

“And if they use the money for those qualified purposes, the loan will be forgiven,” Romney said. “This is obviously going to be a big plus.”

Jardine said he started the U.S. Small Business Administration’s loan application Tuesday night “and that website is so busy, I did it for two hours and then had to go back today to continue the process.”

Some commercial landlords in Utah and across the U.S. are seeking tenants out and offering to delay their payments rather than losing them longterm and facing the costs of finding new ones, a top Utah real estate broker said.

Kip Paul, vice chairman of investment sales with Cushman & Wakefield in Salt Lake City, said Utah’s commercial real estate markets are suffering widespread harm in the crisis, particularly the retail and office sectors. Paul said he advises landlords to work with their tenants and defer rents for one or more months — if they can.

And as an owner of small commercial properties himself, Paul said he is telling his tenants the same.

“Don’t worry about rent for a couple of months. Focus on keeping your business viable. Focus on keeping your main employees employed as best you can,” Paul advised smaller merchants who may be struggling. Taking those and other steps in hopes of keeping them afloat, he said, was in his own best interest as a landlord as well.

“If they go broke, it’s going to cost me more money to re-lease the space, do new tenant improvements and pay leasing commissions,” he said.

But hundreds of othe landlords don’t have that leeway, Paul added. “For many of them, it is their livelihood,” he said Wednesday. “It is paying their bills and putting food on their table.”