Va. small business owner thinks others could face what forced her to close

Over the pandemic, WTOP has been keeping up with a Virginia small business owner who now says she’ll have to close.

The hair salon owner isn’t shutting the doors over health concerns, but rather because she learned she’ll have to pay back months of reduced rent.

“I don’t know what to tell you. It’s very difficult for me right now,” said Irma Wheeler, choking back tears as she spoke about closing her hair salon.

Wheeler said her landlord offered her three months at half rent, but only later learned that she would have to pay the other half back, as well as the 3% annual rent increase when she agreed to sign on for another year’s lease with Federal Realty. She couldn’t afford that, so she closed Illusions of Shirlington.

“They were more concerned about their stockholders than a tenant that has been there for 28 years,” Wheeler said. “Half the time, I did not pay myself so I could [meet] my obligations to the rent.”

“After a year of fighting, I just couldn’t take it anymore — trying to negotiate with them, trying to talk to them,” Wheeler added. “And when they asked me to give them an offer I did, and they will not accept it. And that was very painful to me,” Wheeler said.

Federal Realty did not respond to multiple attempts for comment.

Wheeler said even though she has closed her business, she still must pay back rent. She’s concerned that other businesses that received help during the pandemic will have to pay it back and be forced to close as she did.

“We can’t catch up. We lost two months of business with a pandemic. We are working at half capacity. We were following every rule … I’m not trying to whine about it. Every small business and every business is going through it. But I was just asking for some help.”

Wheeler said she is thankful to have her Georgetown salon location, where her employees and clients can go for the time being.

Nearly 25% of businesses in Virginia have closed temporarily or permanently due to impacts from the pandemic as of December 2020, according to Sean Brazier, the vice president of economic competitiveness at the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.

During the Virginia Small Business Commission’s meeting Dec. 1, Brazier said federal and state programs provided 60% of state businesses with loans, per the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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