Ben Assef

Ben Assef, owner of Northern Sun Productions in Rochester, said the COVID-19 pandemic has hit his business hard. "On Friday the 13th, I had one cancellation after another," Assef said. "My business lost $150,000 in revenue in that one day." (Contributed photo)

One Rochester small-business owner thinks the city needs to re-route funds from planned projects like the $15 million Peace Plaza renovation and adding bike lanes to streets, to help save local businesses.

Ben Assef, who owns Northern Sun Production, feels much more needs to be done to help businesses like his. Northern Sun, which started in 2012, manages concerts and events.

“On Friday the 13th, I had one cancellation after another. My business lost $150,000 in revenue in that one day,” Assef said of how the COVID-19 pandemic brought Northern Sun to a screeching halt.

While federal and state governments are offering some small-business assistance, Assef believes a booming community like Rochester should be able to help the businesses that make up its local economy.

He started a Facebook group called “Rochester Small Business Aid,” where others are voicing similar opinions. About 120 businesses with 600 employees responded to a survey on the group. Incoming revenue was at a full or nearly full stop for 67% of them. That adds up to $3 million in lost revenue for a month from just those businesses.

“I’m not a politician or an economist. I plan 200 to 300 concerts a year,” Assef said. “The economy in Rochester has drastically changed ... The recession is already very real for a lot of businesses in our community.”

The Rochester City Council is offering $250,000 in emergency loans for small businesses, up to $25,000 per business, from the Economic Development Fund, managed by the Rochester Economic Development Inc.

“That amount is grossly insufficient,” Assef said, pointing out that the city is planning a $15 million revamp of the Peace Plaza, with $3 million alone to be spent on art. Plans to add more bike lanes to Rochester’s streets are also moving forward.

In addition to the city, Assef is also looking at Destination Medical Center efforts and wondering how that organization could help the small businesses it needs for Rochester to flourish.

Mayor Kim Norton said the city, RAEDI, the Rochester Downtown Alliance and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce are meeting daily to work on support for small businesses.

“From his (Assef’s) example alone, it should be very clear that we will not, locally, be able to replace his and others’ lost income — the federal government must step up and provide additional dollars and resources to help. Cities are able to help disperse funds from state and federal resources when they are released,” Norton wrote.

“DMC funds are designated in law for specific purposes, primarily infrastructure, and significant changes from that would likely require legislative action,” she said. “That being said, DMC is involved in discussions and may have other thoughts or ideas as we move ahead.”

Assef is concerned that many small businesses in Rochester already had several loans before this pandemic. Adding more loans, even with low or zero interest rates, will just add to that burden.

“Big businesses get bailouts. Small businesses get loans. A lot of small businesses are already borrowed to the max ... The thought of taking on another loan during a recession is a scary proposition,” he said. “Many of the businesses I’m talking to say that instead, they are just going to file for bankruptcy.”

RAEDI President Ryan Nolander said there is only so much his nonprofit organization can do to help.

“While he can make comments that he feels RAEDI doesn’t have much to offer businesses like his, we are at the mercy of the programs that are available and working within those constraints,” Nolander wrote.

Norton pointed out that this is a quickly changing situation.

“Just a reminder that this is week two of our local pandemic response, and there is a long way to go — I would ask that the community be patient and stay as calm as they can as this rolls out,” she added.

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Business Reporter

Jeff has worked at newspapers as a reporter, columnist, editor, photographer and copy editor since 1992. He started at the Post Bulletin in 1999. Kiger is the PB's business reporter and writes a daily column, "Heard on the Street."