WTOC Investigates: Analysis shows Savannah businesses received hundreds of millions of dollars in PPP loans

SPREADSHEET: Small Business Administration releases detailed information on Coastal Empire, Lowcountry PPP loan recipients

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - To avoid mass layoffs during the shutdown, Congress approved billions of dollars for small businesses in the form of forgivable loans.Earlier this week, the U.S. Treasury released a detailed list of which companies benefited.

Information for the Coastal Empire and surrounding counties are below:

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An analysis by WTOC Investigates found as little as $188 million or as much as $443 million went to 559 small businesses in Savannah. A large majority of the loans fell between $150,000 to $350,000. On the high end, two companies each received a loan worth between $5 million and $10 million dollars.

"We would have certainly gone bankrupt without this type of incentive," said Tyler Merritt, owner of Nine Line Apparel.

Back in March, the retail clothing manufacturer off Fort Argyle Road faced a possible shutdown."We lost about 45 percent of our revenue stream so I had to shutdown three retail locations, our whole sales went to zero so i had to find employment for those people. This PPP loan allowed me to keep about 95 percent of my employees," he said.

The company received a $1.3 million government loan, which Merritt said has covered mostly payroll and helped the company turn a corner."So for us, we're seeing the end of this at least as it stands right now. And we've been able to strategically pivot to making millions of masks and distribute millions of masks," he said.

It’s a predicament so many other small business owners also faced and sought a government loan to help.The variety of small businesses in Savannah with loans includes law firms, hotels, restaurants, churches, private schools and exclusive social clubs.

One of those on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list: the Oglethorpe Club. The invite-only, society club received between $150 thousand and $350 thousand to pay its 11 employees. (The U.S. Treasury did not disclose the exact amount of each loan, but rather provided a range.)

Also on the list: private clubs behind gated communities, including the Ford Plantation Club in Richmond Hill. U.S. Treasury records show it received a $1 million to $2 million PPP loan for its 115 employees. Neither club returned a call from WTOC.

It's difficult to know based on the information provided if the money from that program will be forgiven. It can only be forgiven if the business can show it used the funds mostly for payroll and utilities.

If a company does not use the money as prescribed, then it's not forgivable and has to be paid back at a 1 percent interest rate. Nationally, critics of the program have said it allowed for companies to take advantage of a low-interest government loan, and for the government to ask questions later.

U.S. Congressman Buddy Carter, R-Ga 1st District, explained the intent of the program.

”We created this and we created it loosely so that the department of Treasury and SBA would be able to administer the program and get the money out there quickly, Carter said. “The intent was to maintain the employee, employer relationship.”

That relationship is why Chatham Emergency Services said it applied for a $2 to $5 million loan. Chief Chuck Kearns said the funds arrived just in the nick of time to maintain payroll. He declined to disclose the exact amount.

”We knew our business was going to fall off, and it has just as predicted,” he said.

Revenue went down almost overnight, he said as ambulance services dropped off about 30 percent across the nation.

”People didn’t want to go to the hospitals, they were afraid they were going to get the virus,” he added.

The loan money has helped Chatham Emergency Services pay for sick leave and overtime for its 315 essential employees who must be ready to respond at a moments notice.

”We do the best that we can because we know the community is counting on us in their darkest hours,” Kearns said.

Thomas & Hutton Engineering Company in Savannah received a loan valued between $5 million and $10 million. Company CEO and President Sam McCachern explained in an email that the money was crucial to making payroll for its 321 employees.

”Having survived the Great Recession, we are well aware of the impact of economic shocks. A little over ten years ago, we reduced our staff by over fifty percent to deal with that economic reality,” he wrote, in part.

For some companies, the mass layoffs happened before the loan money arrived. A WTOC analysis found at least three companies that received a PPP loan also notified the state about impending layoffs.

Westin Savannah filed a layoff notice at the end of March with the Georgia Department of Labor. The hotel reportedly cut 244 jobs, according to public information on the department’s website. A month later, the hotel received a PPP loan valued between a $5 million and $10 million with a promise to retain 231 jobs, according to loan information released by the U.S. Treasury.

It’s unclear if the hotel hired back the employees it laid off. A general manager for the Westin Savannah declined to comment on the matter - saying those decisions would have been made at a corporate level.

There are billions of dollars still available for small businesses to access through the PPP loan program, Rep. Carter said. He expects the program will come up next week when Congress reconvenes or later in the month.

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