When Rolling Hills Flower Mart owner Chelsea Gaudenti first heard about a new grass-roots grant program for mom-and-pop shops in Manhattan Beach, she was excited.

Rolling Hills Flower Mart has two locations: a shop on Manhattan Avenue that opened in 2015 and a Redondo Beach store that has been in the Gaudenti family for more than 25 years.

After closing the stores March 19 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gaudenti applied for the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program to protect her employee's jobs. But, she said, she unsuccessful—twice. It was impossible to not feel deflated.

So, Gaudenti had no choice but to furlough 15 employees.

Enter the grass-roots program: Local Love for Manhattan Beach. It's a private fund launched this week to award up $5,000 to $20,000 grants to downtown and North Manhattan businesses impacted by the coronavirus.

The idea, said seeding founder Jeffrey Serota, is to ensure the city's charming brick and mortar stores return to continue the beach community's reputation as a beloved place to live and to visit.

When she heard about the program late last week, Gaundenti considered applying.

"The first thing I thought was 'Wow a business like mine could really benefit from this.'" But, then the tide suddenly shifted. Yesterday, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared florists could open for curbside or delivery service.

So Gaundenti, who overnight hired back half her staff and is ramping up for Mother's Day deliveries, went from thinking she'd need the money, to contributing $1,000 towards the Local Love fund.

"We decided at this point that the neighborhood and the community is the most important thing because we all lean on each other," Gaundenti said. "We need them to be there when we come back."

And, it's that spirit of community generosity that Local Love for Manhattan Beach is based upon, said founder Serota, who received help setting it up from the Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce and the Manhattan Beach Rotary Club.

"It's all about the small town feel and neighbor helping neighbor," said Serota, who along with his wife Peir, contributed $200,000 to get the COVID-19 relief fund up and running.

In less than a week of launching, Local Love has raised approximately $350,000, said Serota. Withing the first 24 hours of launching, he said, they received 21 applications from the nearly 146 owners with business licenses in either downtown or North Manhattan Beach.

A Local Love for Manhattan Beach grant is open to businesses with fewer than 30 employees, open for at least a year, who have had a significant decline in revenue and income due to the coronvirus pandemic, said Serota. Tax forms, a personal financial need statement and an optional letter of reference are part of the application process. Above all, the business must be the main source of family income and applicants need to demonstrate integrity and passion about the small beach town.

In reviewing the 40 or so applications they've received so far, Serota said every application brought him and his wife to tears. There is a real need in the community for this type of program, he said, and the fact that the monetary aid is being provided by neighbors is what really impressed business owners who applied.
 
Kelly Stroman, chamber president, said she loves how this fund is there to help lift up the community.

"It's time to take care of those who have always been there to support the community, who have answered every call to action and who have so generously supported every team, school, charity and favor asked of them for years," said Stroman.

"Each business represents a thread," Stroman added. "Some big, some small, some old, some new, but together they weave the tapestry of this town."

Serota knows about that tapestry as he credits Manhattan Beach with changing his life.

The semi-retired private equities investor moved to Southern California in 1990 to attend UCLA's MBA program. After a year living near campus, he said, he was eager to build his life back to his home state of New York. As a second-year student, however, he was persuaded to stay when he discovered Manhattan Beach.

"It has that beach vibe, but everyone is super smart, everyone is cultured and ambitious and everyone is so welcoming and so social," said Serota, adding that people don't appreciate how much wealth is contained in the small town.

But, it's not that the town is pretentious, said Serota who with wife Peir are raising two children.

"It's not about the 'who's who,'" he said. "It's all about enjoying and being on this earth together."

And it's that assured, but humble success is what Serota is hoping will ignite small business owners in town.

"To me success (with the grant) is a family sitting around the kitchen table worried about whether to reopen their business or not," said Serota. "Local Love is the thing that swings that decision for them and then we as community members get to enjoy that decision because their business reopens."

Local Love Manhattan Beach is partnering with an organization to administer all aspects of the grant program, from assessing eligibility to distributing and receiving funds. The one2one USA Foundation is a nationally recognized nonprofit that specializes in pairing donors and needy individuals in an unbiased, transparent way.

To donate to the fund or to apply for a grant, visit https://one2oneusa.org/llmb/ 

*Updated on 5/8/20 to reflect the grant's employee limit is 30, not 20. The letter of reference is optional, not a required part of the application process.

Contact Lisa Jacobs lisa.jacobs@TBRnews.com or follow her on Twitter @lisaannjacobs.

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