City gives $1.7M in emergency grants to small businesses, arts groups

Small businesses got an average grant of $2,744, arts organizations $16,818. Restaurants and food service businesses made up the largest category of grantees.

Ohmega Salvage is one of 354 businesses to be granted emergency funds from Berkeley because of the pandemic. Photo: Ohmega Salvage

The city of Berkeley will soon be distributing $1.7 million to 354 businesses and 47 arts organizations to help them weather the financial downturn caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

More than 1,050 businesses with fewer than 50 employees and 70 arts nonprofits applied for the grants, which were part of the $3 million Berkeley put into the Berkeley Relief Fund. More funds will soon be granted to renters, and a second round of grants for businesses and arts groups will be made in the near future.

“Every business owner in Berkeley is counting pennies right now.” — David Salk, Focal Point

“I’m grateful for every nickel of it because right now I have no business coming in, but I still have lots of ongoing expenses,” said David Salk, who started Focal Point opticians in Berkeley 44 years ago and got $2,500 from the relief fund. “Every business owner in Berkeley is counting pennies right now.”

The range of businesses getting grants reads like a who’s who of Berkeley. Included among the 354 recipients are the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, Berkeley Humane Society, Bobby G’s Pizzeria, Broc Cellars, Builder’s Booksource, Camp Winnarainbow, Celia’s Mexican Restaurant, Earthly Goods, the Ecology Center, the Daily Cal, Eastwind Books, Escapist Comics Bookstore, Ellington and French, Oaks Jewelers, Ohmega Salvage, the Rose Garden Inn, the Solano Stroll, the Starry Plough and many more.


The arts organizations getting grants are also well-known and include Berkeley Repertory Theater, Heyday Books, Shotgun Theater, the Berkeley Symphony, the California Jazz Conservatory, Cazadero Performing Arts Camp, Crowden Music Center, Kala Art Institute, La Peña Cultural Center, Luna Dance Institute, Small Press Distribution and the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra, among many others.

“We weren’t expecting to receive $24,000 in funding,” said Mary Lins, the general manager of Berkeley Playhouse. “What an amazing bright spot that was.”

Berkeley Playhouse was in the middle of performances of the musical Memphis, and was about to start In the Heights when the shelter-in-place order was put into effect, forcing the theater to cancel all shows. Since then, the theater company has switched to Zoom theater, dance and storytelling classes for children and teens, and is trying everything it can think of to produce revenue, including asking donors for more funds, applying for a Payroll Protection Plan grant, and more.

“We want to have our doors open when this is over,” said Lins. “We want to be there for the community.”

The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously in mid-March to donate $3 million to the Berkeley Relief Fund, $1 million each to small businesses, arts organizations and tenants.


The funds came from various city pots of money. Berkeley redirected $1 million in unallocated Measure U1 revenues, approximately $1.6 million from Measure P funds, and $400,000 from the general fund, according to a COVID-19 budget memo from City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley.

In addition to the city money, Berkeley companies, residents and others have contributed an additional $842,000 to The Berkeley Relief Fund. The organization has been holding virtual fundraisers weekly to raise money, kicking off with a March 22 event with Michael Lewis, the best-selling author. Other Berkeley arts groups, such as the Bay Area Book Festival and Shotgun Theater, have been featured in the weekly programs, too. Organizers are hoping the public eventually will match the city’s $3 million grant.

In order to apply for the business grant funds, applicants had to have a minimum of one employee and a maximum of 50 and had to have seen at least a 25% drop in revenues due to the pandemic. The grants are to be used for paying employees, rent or to cover operational expenses.

“It’s a heartbreaking exercise. It gives us direct insight into how this crisis is upending businesses.” — Jordan Klein, city’s economic development manager

A team from Berkeley’s office of economic development reviewed the grant applications and selected recipients based on their tenure in Berkeley, the household income of the owner, the race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation of the owner, and more, according to the memo.

“It’s a heartbreaking exercise,” Jordan Klein, Berkeley’s economic development manager said a few weeks ago when he was in the middle of reviewing the applications. “It gives us direct insight into how this crisis is upending businesses.” (He urged all Berkeley businesses to fill out a survey from the East Bay Economic Development Alliance to help create a clear picture of the business climate.)


The Berkeley Relief Fund will be distributing $965,999 to small businesses. The average grant award is $2,744. The maximum grants were $5,000.

Restaurants and food service businesses made up the largest category of grantees (120 grant awards totaling $335,000) with retail stores coming in second (87 grant awards totaling $246,150). Of the 354 total, 63% of the businesses have a household income that is low or very low, according to the Williams-Ridley memo. Forty-five percent of the grants given out went to businesses owned by people of color. Fifty-four percent went to companies that have been operating in Berkeley for more than 15 years.

Berkeley Playhouse, which puts on musicals in the Julia Morgan Theater on College Avenue, got $24,000 from the Berkeley Relief Fund. In March 2016, the company put on the world premiere of Bridges: A New Musical. Photo: Ben Krantz Studio

The grants made to arts organizations were much larger than those made to small businesses because fewer groups were eligible to apply. Berkeley will hand out $790,445 to 47 nonprofits. Grants range from $400 to $24,000, with the average grant award amount at $16,818.

Berkeley is also giving away $1 million in housing grants to residents at risk of eviction. Interest in those funds has been high, with more than 500 people inquiring how they can apply, according to Lisa Warhuus, the director of health, housing and community services. The East Bay Community Law Center and the Eviction Defense Center are administering the program and have begun processing approximately 300 applications. Funds will be dispersed to applicants no later than May 15th and the average grant will be about $5,000, she said.

Update, April 29: This story was updated to include more information about the Housing Retention Program.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.