Big Players In Illinois Got Millions In Federal Help For ‘Small Businesses’

Federal Paycheck Protection Program loans of up to $10 million went to Oberweis Dairy, Willow Creek Community Church and many others in Illinois.

Donald Trump after signing a bill
President Donald Trump poses for a photo after signing the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act in June. More than 27,000 businesses in Illinois got $150,000 or more from the PPP, data released Monday show. Evan Vucci / Associated Press
Donald Trump after signing a bill
President Donald Trump poses for a photo after signing the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act in June. More than 27,000 businesses in Illinois got $150,000 or more from the PPP, data released Monday show. Evan Vucci / Associated Press

Big Players In Illinois Got Millions In Federal Help For ‘Small Businesses’

Federal Paycheck Protection Program loans of up to $10 million went to Oberweis Dairy, Willow Creek Community Church and many others in Illinois.

During the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, large amounts of federal aid went to some of the most popular brand names in Illinois, many of Chicago’s major cultural institutions, charter and other private schools — and even one of the biggest megachurches in the country, according to data released Monday.

In March, when the COVID-19 outbreak first prompted many states to all but shut down their economies, Congress and President Donald Trump approved an initiative that was supposed to help avert layoffs by “small businesses.” The Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, has doled out more than half a trillion dollars across the country in just a few months.

Trump administration officials initially declined to provide any details of who was getting those forgivable loans and how much money any of the recipients had been sent, citing concerns about releasing proprietary information.

But the data released Monday identified all who are getting $150,000 or more — including more than 27,000 recipients in Illinois. A WBEZ analysis of the new data found 255 companies, nonprofits and other organizations got the largest loans available — more than $5 million and as much as $10 million.

The records show those enjoying the biggest PPP loans included the Field Museum of Natural History, Four Seasons Heating and Air Conditioning in Bedford Park, the Des Plaines-based Illinois Bone & Joint Institute, the Mario Tricoci Hair Salon & Day Spa chain, Oberweis Dairy, Willow Creek Community Church, the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.

The chairman of Oberweis Dairy, in North Aurora, is Jim Oberweis, the Republican state senator and frequent candidate for higher office. He’s running in the November general election against Democratic U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood.

In a statement, Oberweis said the company “applied for and was granted PPP funding to save the jobs and paychecks of its employees during this unprecedented time.” Although the government only provided a range for the loans, a spokesman for Oberweis said the company received between $5.6 and $6 million through the PPP.

Oberweis also said he receives no salary from the company, serves only in an advisory role and the CEO and president of Oberweis Dairy is his son, Joe.

Company officials said they were “undoubtedly concerned about the survival of our business given that we couldn’t confidently foresee what parts of it would be allowed to operate.”

Oberweis is described on his congressional campaign’s website as a staunch supporter of free-market principles. Underwood’s campaign declined to comment.

Willow Creek Community Church, which has seven locations in the Chicago area, has been one of the best-attended churches in the country but has been rocked by allegations against its longtime pastor in recent years.

On Tuesday, the church’s new senior pastor, Dave Dummitt, sent a letter to his congregation addressing the news of the loan.

“We recognize that trustworthy and wise Christians and churches find rationales both for and against accepting these loans,” Dummitt wrote in a blog post on the church’s website. “Our intention, in line with the objective of the law, was to keep as many staff as possible.”

Still, he said, Willow Creek now must furlough some employees. A spokeswoman for the church declined to say exactly how much Willow Creek got from the government.

Another $5 million-plus PPP loan went to Pangea Equity Partners II LP, according to the data released by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Other federal documents show the entity getting federal assistance is tied to an apartment empire that has filed thousands of eviction cases in Chicago in the past, according to the Chicago Reader.

A smaller federal loan of between $2 million and $5 million went to Sterling Bay, the Chicago developer of the planned Lincoln Yards development, on the city’s near North Side. Sterling Bay also is getting about $1.3 billion in tax-increment financing assistance from the city, after aldermen approved the company’s plan last year.

In a statement Monday, a spokeswoman for the developer said, “Sterling Bay applied for PPP assistance to help avoid future layoffs and pay reductions for our Chicago-based team of 200-plus employees.”

Chicago Public Media, the nonprofit that operates WBEZ, got $2.8 million in PPP funding, a spokeswoman said. Federal help “enabled us to avoid layoffs or furloughs for any staff members during these past few months,” the spokeswoman said in June. Chicago Public Media ultimately laid off 12 employees.

The publishers of the Chicago Sun-Times and the Daily Herald also got loans of between $2 million and $5 million, as did many other familiar names in local business and culture, including:

  • The Buona Beef fast-food chain.

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica.

  • Home Run Inn pizzerias.

  • Rosebud Restaurants.

  • Navy Pier Inc.

  • Shedd Aquarium

  • Planned Parenthood of Illinois.

  • Morton Arboretum.

  • Lincoln Park Zoo.

  • Joffrey Ballet.

  • Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

  • Museum of Science and Industry.

  • Ditka’s restaurant.

  • Monterrey Security Consultants, which provides guards at Soldier Field.

Even with this help from Washington, the pandemic and resulting shutdown orders have led to layoffs at many major local cultural institutions, including the Museum of Science and Industry, the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum.

PPP loans also went to many deeply established private schools, including Lake Forest Academy, Fenwick High School, the Frances Xavier Warde School, Lycee Francais de Chicago, Marist High School and Loyola Academy, as well as several publicly-funded charter schools and the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

“It was a relatively straightforward decision for us to apply for it,” INCS President Andrew Broy of the PPP loan of $340,000 his organization got.

He said the pandemic forced the cancellation of the organization’s fundraising gala, and the loan from Washington would prevent any layoffs and be forgiven.

Notably absent from the list unveiled Monday was the Chicago-based Potbelly chain of sandwich shops, which gave back a $10 million PPP loan amid negative publicity in April.

Federal officials said the companies on the newly-released list got the vast majority of the money disbursed under the program. Still, the 27,412 in Illinois who were named Monday represent only a small fraction of the roughly 200,000 loan recipients from the state, who have raked in a total of more than $22 billion.

This story has been updated.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.