'It feels hopeless:' Small businesses face daunting future as federal relief funds run dry

RACINE -- An endless loop of emails.

That's how some small business owners describe their current situation -- unable to find relief from their bank, their insurance provider or the federal government.

Small businesses once thriving are now holding on by a thread and the hits keep coming.

"It was crushing. It was a devastating thing," said Phillip Ontko, owner of Castle Lanes bowling alley in Racine. "It's nerve-wracking to think a business I built successfully for 29 years is on the brink."

This week, the federal Paycheck Protection Program ran out of funds just as Wisconsin extended its Safer at Home order. Thousands of small businesses will remain closed for another month, while some shops and restaurants are able to adjust to an online or carryout-only business model. It presents a less-than-ideal situation for those businesses, but there is a section of small businesses that can't switch to another model.

Castle Lanes

"My business has fallen through the cracks," Ontko said.

Phillip Ontko

Ontko successfully operated his business through the H1N1 outbreak and was ready to operate through COVID-19. He agrees with social distancing, and was fully prepared for the cleaning demands continued operation.

The bowling alley's main income is generated by bowling leagues. He had 20 full-time employees and covered their medical premiums.

"It feels hopeless, the stress of will we be open, but also all the people that depend on us," said Ontko.

Like many, his insurance won't let him file a claim for business disruption during the pandemic. He's now among the thousands waiting in line for a loan to stay afloat.

Now that golf courses are open with restrictions, he thinks operations could also function the same way for his bowling alley. However, getting ahold of anyone has been nearly impossible.

"I've sent letters to the governor, the mayor and to my alderman. I've gotten automatic generated responses," he said. "'It doesn't seem we have an avenue to show we can be responsible."

Ontko fears that with no one directly listening to small business owners like himself, thousands od doors will end up closed for good -- including his.

After our story aired at 5 p.m., Phillip got a call from the City of Racine mayor to discuss options that could help him out.