When Brigitte Pippin reopened Southtown Cleaners and Alterations in early February, loyal customers sent her potted plants and cards. They were happy for her to be back.
“I got so many plants I had to take some home,’’ she said. “The cards said: ‘We missed you.’ It’s so great to be missed.’’
But early on after the tornado, Pippin had second thoughts about rebuilding at 2630 S. Main St.
“It’s so naked everywhere,’’ she said, emphasizing her point with her German accent. “I asked myself: What if nobody builds back?’’
She decided to rebuild, but she soon found out that her insurance coverage for property and contents didn’t go far enough.
It was 17 years ago when she purchased insurance for her business. Her coverage totaled $193,000.
She would need help to raise the more than $500,000 she needed to rebuild.
“It did not take long to figure out it was going to cost a lot more than that to rebuild. But who would ever think you would lose everything?’’ she asked. “It was going to cost a lot more to rebuild, and we thought we were debt free.’’
She said she was insured for the status quo, but the status quo was gone. Her challenge would be to restore her business and prepare for the future, but at the same time make allowances for the customers she might have lost. It was a gamble.
Looking at a partially full conveyor last week, where clothes await customer pickup, she said, “It’s not as good as before, but every week it is coming back.’’
Pippin’s break came through one of her customers, Mike Pence, of Joplin.
She recognized Pence in a television report about the Joplin Tomorrow Fund, which offers low-interest loans that were being offered to qualifying businesses that were victims of the May 22 storm. She called Pence and asked whether she might qualify.
“He said: ‘Oh, definitely.’ I was the first to apply,’’ she said.
She and her husband obtained a $30,000, seven-year loan at an interest rate of 2.5 percent from the Joplin Tomorrow Fund. They combined that with a Small Business Administration loan and the insurance settlement, she said.
She used her loan to install a laundry and purchase automated equipment that can press a shirt.
As she was talking about her comeback last week, Pence walked through the doors of her business with some pants that needed repair.
Said Pence: “The ink had barely dried on the Joplin Tomorrow documents when I told the board: ‘I have our first applicant. She’s a self-made woman whose business was blown down by the tornado. She’s coming back and she needs us.’”
Also approved for a loan from the Joplin Tomorrow Fund was Heather Grills, owner of the new Phoenix Fired Art, 1603 S. Main St. She used the fund and a loan from the SBA to help start a business.
“What we did was borrow $40,000 at a low interest rate from the Joplin Tomorrow Fund for job creation,’’ she said. “The fund stipulates job creation and what you will contribute to the community. We created two jobs immediately. We’ll probably create two to five additional jobs over the next few years.
“We also provide a venue for artists to sell their work, which brings money into the city,’’ she said. “The Joplin Tomorrow Fund has permitted us to start out with a gas-fired kiln, which is an important part of our organization. This will help us attract the professional level studio members.
“The kiln is very crucial to our business. We can become a regional clay center as opposed to a local pottery studio. That loan made a big difference.’’
‘A warning to us’
Within a week of the tornado, officials at the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce were hearing from their counterparts in other communities that had been hit by natural disasters. What they learned was that some businesses who thought they could rebuild without help after a disaster actually would need help.
“They sounded a warning to us,’’ said Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce. “There will be businesses who might get Small Business Administration support and good bank support to get rebuilt, but it’s all aimed at returning you to the status quo, as it was.
“You might not necessarily need a bigger building, but you might need different equipment. You might need an opportunity to expand. All of the tools are generally there to get you back to what you were prior to the disaster,’’ he said. “But that status quo does not exist anymore.’’
O’Brian said the chamber responded by forming the Joplin Recovery Center, which brought to the table all of the resources that a business can use to rebuild or help an existing business respond to the change in market conditions.
“Through the Small Business and Technology Development Center (at Missouri Southern State University), we have been able to help businesses leverage their SBA money to expand their staff,’’ he said.
The Tomorrow Fund project was a goal of former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, who visited Joplin soon after the tornado. He started the fund with a $500,000 donation from the Danforth Foundation. The fund now has grown to more than $1 million. It gives low-interest loans to businesses that create jobs.
The Joplin Tomorrow Fund is just one outreach available through the chamber. Another is the Business Recovery Fund, which has $200,000 and provides working capital in the form of short-term, low-interest loans “for businesses that have hit a wall and cannot move forward,’’ O’Brian said.
He noted that the assistance is not limited to businesses that were affected by the tornado.
“They can be from outside of that area. They may want to just grow their business,’’ he said. “They may just have an opportunity they need help with.
“We know what resources are available,” he added. “We can take them from where they are today to where they want their business to go. We can get them past the roadblocks that are holding them back.’’
Applications for assistance may be filled out by visiting the website www.joplintomorrow.org, or contacting Cindy Weiss, finance director at the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, 417-624-4150.