San Joaquin County has spent $ 2 million dollars matching money residents will spend at local businesses, in theory, putting cash in digital pockets and injecting much-needed relief into local businesses. The program has been active for over eight months, but south Stockton businesses have yet to see a dime.
The Relief Across Downtown Program, or RAD card – piloted by the Downtown Modesto Partnership and later picked up by San Joaquin County —is an app-based relief program that started with private donations and has since been expanded with federal COVID relief funds. The county spent $ 1 million in CARES Act funding toward RAD cards in June and another $ 1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds in September.
At the beginning of March, 256 businesses were enrolled in the RAD program, up from 249 in February, which the Employment and Economic Development Department attests to continued interest in the program. Over $ 3.5 million in spending power has been loaded onto RAD cards with about 73% already used, but of the several hundred businesses benefiting from RAD card sales, zero reside in south Stockton.
County Supervisor Miguel Villapudua, who represents the residents of south Stockton, said he saw some hesitancy when he initially walked into businesses to push the RAD card.
“I don’t think the trust factor was there,” Villapudua said. “If somebody walks in and says, ‘Hey, would you accept this app to pay for your meal and pay for everything,'” people look at you and say, ‘No, I want cash or credit card.’ That just a challenge we’ve got to face. ”
Room for redemption
San Joaquin County’s Employment and Economic Development Department will be asking the Board of Supervisors March 22 for an additional $ 2.3 million toward RAD cards, the largest county investment in the program yet by far.
Under the new funding cycle, the county would now match up to $ 200 in RAD card funds to be used countywide, as opposed to previously being limited by city. Included in the $ 2.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds would be $ 30,000 for purchasing tablets and technology devices for businesses to process RAD transactions, something that was not done in previous funding cycles of the program.
Patti Virgen, executive director of the county’s Employment of Economic Development Department, came on board in a leadership change after the initial rollout of the RAD card program. She said while she appreciates the efforts her predecessors made, she wants more county staff and resources in underserved areas.
“We’re really going to get boots on the ground to get in and talk to businesses,” Virgen said. “We’re meeting with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to target some of those businesses that have a language barrier.”
Lisa Vela is the relatively new Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO of about two years and continues to lead Stockton’s ethnic businesses through the pandemic. She said part of the reason the RAD card hasn’t taken off in south Stockton is that business owners’ bottom line was so dire, their minds were on basic necessities.
“If I’m worried about paying my employees, I’m not thinking about a RAD card program,” Vela said. “I’m thinking about critical resources: a roof over my head, inventory to sell, staffing, medical – the RAD card program, although a critical resource, wasn’t in the line of sight.”
In previous RAD card funding rounds, “Community champions” were selected to speak with local businesses, but clearly the message did not resonate in south Stockton. Over 20 years of experience in television, radio and marketing have taught Vela that establishing trust is about having the right messenger.
“We look towards trusted messengers when we’re doing marketing and promotions,” she said, referring also to her time as chair of the census Complete Count Committee for San Joaquin County. “There’s a lot of historical, institutional feelings of [distrust.] ‘If I go fill out this form, what does this mean? Am I going to have to pay it back? Can I trust him with my personal information? What are they trying to do? Are they going to take advantage of my business? Will I have to pay more taxes? ‘ It’s a trust factor. ”
In addition to a new media and radio campaign – Virgen said the plan is to get a Spanish radio station on board, but as of publication a deal had not been firmed up – Vela said she was pleased to see the new round of funding included bilingual education for business owners from county staff members fluent in Spanish and Mandarin.
“When you’re talking money, you’re going to use the language you’re most comfortable with,” Vela said. “When you’re talking about health, you could speak perfect English, but you start speaking Spanish because now we’re talking personal. Same thing goes for finances. ”
South Stockton businesses have missed over eight months of financial aid from the RAD card program, but San Joaquin County can make up some ground with equitable outreach for their proposed third round of funding.
“With (third round) success, they’ll have a fourth, a fifth and a sixth-round, because in San Joaquin County, this disparity is not going to go away,” Vela said. “With Patti Virgen’s leadership, talking to them and seeing the direction that it’s going, I’m very inspired by what they can do.”
Record reporter Ben Irwin covers Stockton and the San Joaquin County government. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @ B1rwin. Support local news, subscribe to The Stockton Record at recordnet.com/subscribenow.