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Small businesses struggle to stay in their locations

Posted at 7:15 PM, Apr 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-16 09:47:59-04

CLEVELAND — Some small businesses in Northeast Ohio are struggling as the stay-at-home order continues, and one small business owner in Ohio City said she had to move out of her store a few days ago.

Heather Sapanos is the owner of Vintage Fashion CLE and Rising Boutique in Ohio City. She said the first week of March was one of her best weeks of sales, but the following week, news about COVID-19 caused her sales to plummet more than 80%.

"It’s been really stressful as a small business owner," Sapanos said.

Sapanos contacted her landlord, a small business owner himself, to start figuring out what to do about rent. Both Sapanos and her landlord said they spent weeks negotiating what to do, but in the end, they did not come to an agreement.

In a statement to News 5, the landlord wrote that as a small business owner, "I can relate to the pain caused by this pandemic. My business is also essentially closed, and I am struggling without mortgage relief on the Vintage Fashion CLE building."

Instead of a free month of rent in October, which was part of the original lease between the two, the new agreement they considered would have offered two months with no rent payment in April or May and half a month's rent payment each in June and July, while extending the term of the original lease by two months.

The landlord described it as free rent and wrote, "All of these moves were intended to get her back open." But Sapanos described it as a "deferment."

"We couldn’t come to an agreement that we both were on board with," Sapanos said.

The day before Easter, Sapanos found a three-day notice to vacate on the door of her shop.

"I was in complete shock. I didn’t know that this could happen," Sapanos said.

She knew about Governor Mike DeWine's April 1 order, urging landlords to suspend rent payments for small businesses for 90 days. But she consulted with a real estate attorney, who advised her about a clause in the original lease that could have resulted in the loss of her property inside the store if she didn't pay rent.

So, with the help of family and friends, Sapanos moved out on Easter Sunday and Monday.

"Had to take everything out of the store," Sapanos said. "It was unimaginable."

Sapanos has now transitioned to selling items on her website and on her Etsy shop, but she said it doesn't compare to in-store sales.

"It was helpful, but not enough, not anywhere near enough," Sapanos said.

In his statement, the landlord wrote, "Our community is buoyed by small business. I am truly sorry that this didn’t work out another way and take absolute responsibility that I should have handled things differently and in a better manner. The timing was terrible, and I take full responsibility for that mistake. No excuses for my actions. I am sorry, ashamed and embarrassed."

Sapanos said she is not sure what's next for her or for other small businesses.

"Something that I worked so hard for and put so much time and energy into, and now my store is gone and I’m really not sure what I’m going to do," Sapanos said.

She added, "Part of the reason it’s so disheartening is because my landlord is also a small business owner in the community and it was just unfathomable. It’s just, I really don’t even understand how this is happening, why this is happening."

Here is the landlord's full statement to News 5:

"Thank you for reaching out to me about Vintage Fashion CLE.

As a small business owner facing many of the same challenges as Heather, I can relate to the pain caused by this pandemic. My business is also essentially closed, and I am struggling without mortgage relief on the Vintage Fashion CLE building.

When I met Heather last year, she was exactly the kind of tenant I wanted to support to help with the development on Lorain Ave and the expanding Ohio City marketplace.

I offered free rent for April and May to Heather to support her business during COVID-19. After additional discussions, Heather and I verbally agreed to extend the relief by also reducing rent for June and July—hoping this would help her business scale as the economy opened. All of these moves were intended to get her back open.

Overall, we mutually agreed to 3-months rent-free over the next 4 months. Heather did not sign the lease amendment accepting the rent relief and did not provide a reason why.

Throughout all our conversations since the COVID-19 outbreak, I shared resources with her from federal, state & local governments offering relief to small businesses through forgivable loans or grants. This was in addition to the verbal agreement we reached on her rent abatement.

Our community is buoyed by small business. I am truly sorry that this didn’t work out another way and take absolute responsibility that I should have handled things differently and in a better manner. The timing was terrible, and I take full responsibility for that mistake. No excuses for my actions. I am sorry, ashamed and embarrassed.

I sincerely hope Heather’s business is not lost from these events. Her pivot to online sales offers promise and the groundswell of social media support hopefully will help kick that off in a meaningful way.

Once again I am very sorry to all.

Best,
Alex"