Loan forgiveness

Eugene Villines, owner of Elite Barbershop in South Boston, clips the beard of a customer, Willie Stanfield, on Friday afternoon. Villines recently received the news that a small business emergency loan he had received from the town of South Boston in the spring had been converted to a grant.

Twenty-eight South Boston businesses received an early Christmas present this year.

They got the news from South Boston town manager Tom Raab that the loans they received in the spring from the town of South Boston had been converted to grants and they no longer owed the town the money they had expected to have to pay back.

“It’s a tremendous gift to us,” said Eugene Villines, owner of Elite Barbershop on Factory Street, one of the grant recipients.

Raab delivered the news in person to the business owners in November because that is when the first payment in the businesses’ loan agreements was due.

The town in partnership with Destination Downtown South Boston had given a total of $126,000 in no-interest loans to the 28 small businesses to help them with rent and costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We took those loans that we gave out in May and turned them into grants,” Raab explained. “We were able to do that because of the CARES Act funding we received.”

When he went to deliver the good news to the South Boston business owners, Raab said all the business owners expressed their gratitude and some even cried.

“Everybody was kind of overwhelmed, and they were all very appreciative of the town and town council for that (the grants),” Raab shared. “Some of them said they didn’t know how they were going to pay the loans back.”

Elite Barbershop has been in business for 35 years, but Villines shared as he clipped the beard of a customer Friday afternoon that this year of business has been unlike any other. Because of that, he said there were no words to express what it meant to him to receive a grant from the town of South Boston to help with the barbershop’s expenses.

The barbershop was closed in the spring because of an executive order due to COVID-19, and Villines still had to pay the bills at the shop during that time. On top of that, he said he has had extra expenses related to the pandemic.

“You had to get everything renewed, keep things clean,” Villines explained. “We had to keep the floor waxed and sanitized. There was a bunch of stuff that we had to get, even the masks on our face.”

Villines comes to work these days not knowing what to expect, and says he hopes he will not be faced with closing his barbershop for a lengthy timeframe again in another mandated shutdown. He takes things day by day.

“You work on faith,” he says.

When Raab came in to the barbershop to tell Villines that his loan had been forgiven, Villines said Raab told him receiving the CARES Act funding that allowed the town to convert the loans into grants was a “blessing.”

That’s what the grant was to Elite Barbershop – a blessing and an unexpected gift.

Another barbershop owner, Wayne Ferguson, owner of Executive Cuts, said he was “caught off guard” but “impressed” when Raab entered his Main Street shop, told him his loan had been forgiven, and tore up the loan agreement right in front of him.

“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” Ferguson said. “It helps you breathe a little better. You can just work on paying your bills. You don’t have to worry about your loan.”

Ferguson said he used the loan-turned-grant to help with the rent and purchase of COVID-19 related supplies, such as Lysol spray and masks.

During the spring shutdown, Ferguson said he still had to pay the rent, phone bill, water bill and light bill while not making a profit, so the extra money from the grant helped him “catch up” on bills.

The business owner added he appreciates the town/town council’s decision to help out local business owners facing financial hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another business owner who expressed her appreciation for the loan forgiveness from the town of South Boston is Anne Eakes, owner of The Busy Bean coffee shop on Main Street.

“I can’t begin to tell you how thrilled I was when Mr. Raab, our town manager, walked into The Busy Bean and tore up the loan agreement,” Eakes expressed. “What an absolute blessing the town has given small businesses. This pandemic has been so hard for us, and knowing that the town council has our back means more than I can express right now. When I talk about it, it brings tears to my eyes.”

Eakes added she plans to personally thank each town council member for the “blessing” they have given to her and her business.

Town council unanimously approved the small business emergency loan fund at an April 27 work session after Raab announced the town’s decision to establish the fund in partnership with Destination Downtown South Boston.

Businesses in the town of South Boston with 30 or fewer employees were eligible to apply for a loan. The maximum loan amount that an individual business could receive was $5,000.

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.