SALEM — Han Ly Hwang is one of almost 1,000 Oregon restaurant owners who shared a total of $138 million from a Small Business Administration program spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Oregon restaurateurs.

He owns Kim Jong Grillin, a Korean barbecue restaurant in Southeast Portland.

He was among the 960 Oregon owners — of 38,000 nationwide — that got shares in the first round of the program totaling $6 billion. SBA got more than 300,000 applications for the $28.6 billion that Congress set aside for the program in President Joe Biden’s pandemic recovery plan. The applications totaled $69 billion.

Still, after Blumenauer spent nearly a year crafting the program with help from Portland restaurateurs — and barely 60 days after Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan into law — Hwang got help from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. The average grant was $143,000.

“This is a complete game changer. For someone like myself, being a Korean American, this money gives me more of an opportunity to put my culture first and to really share it through the food,” Hwang said Monday, May 17, during a conference call sponsored by Blumenauer.

“This is far from over, but how easy and smooth (Congress and SBA) transitioned this program from being in writing to actually being implemented is jaw-dropping. The help means the world to us. It means that we’re not alone, and we really appreciate that.”

Hwang said the application process with SBA averaged about 20 minutes.

Blumenauer formally proposed the program in June 2020 at $120 billion. After a near-miss with congressional pandemic legislation in December, he was able to secure $28.6 billion for the program in Biden’s recovery plan. The program accepted applications on a first-come, first-served basis, although amounts were reserved for women, veterans, and racial and ethnic minorities. National chains are excluded from participation.

“This is a lifeline that is going to help restore them and move forward,” Blumenauer said.

Blumenauer said he intends to seek more money with the help of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York who joined the cause.

SBA had initial problems with other programs intended to help small businesses during the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn.

Some large businesses benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program, which Congress created as part of the CARES Act last year, whose loans could be forgiven if businesses complied with ever-changing requirements. Some businesses, such as the Los Angeles Lakers professional basketball team, returned their money. Congress and SBA attempted to fix flaws in subsequent rounds of the program.

The opposite happened earlier this year with the initial round of the Shuttered Venues Program, intended to help entertainment venues. But demand for the $16 billion was so great that it crashed the computer system, forcing SBA to start over.

Blumenauer, on the eve of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund going live on May 3, said he was assured SBA was ready to register owners and accept applications.

“You being able to take on this new project, with the overwhelming number of applications received, I could not be more proud of what you and your team have done,” Blumenauer said to SBA Administrator Isabel Guzman.

Guzman, who was confirmed by the Senate for her job on March 16, said she’s happy that the first round of restaurant grants went smoothly.

“We want to make sure the message that gets out there is that the SBA is there to help,” she said on the conference call. “The best thing we could do for small businesses is to help them get back to normal.”

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